Revisiting Rules and Regulations in All-Age Communities: Unenforceable Rules Trumped by Familial Status Rights

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February 28, 2011
Terry R. Dowdall
Esq.

The federal Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) of 1988 created a new protected class of "familial status." In California, the federal courts have addressed these requirements by ruling that "all age" communities may not discriminate against children, no more than management can discriminate against any other protected class. This article is addressed to the need for continuing concerns over rule and regulation content and enforcement. This guidance comes from a case brought against Plaza Mobile Estates, defended by this office.

The FHAA

In 1988, Congress amended the Fair Housing Act (FHA) to prohibit not just discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, disability, or national origin, but also included familial status discrimination. Familial status is defined as " one or more individuals (who have not attained the age of 18 years) being domiciled with ... a parent or another person having legal custody of such individual or individuals."

Among other provisions, it is unlawful:

"To discriminate against any persons in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of ... familial status ..."

Thus, a restriction on access or use of common facilities and amenities bases on age of a child (familial status) is a violation of the FHAA, absent compelling business necessity. Any such rule must be proved to be the least restrictive means to achieving a health and safety justification. What does this legalese mean to the community owner in practical terms? A full-blown trial, risks of heavy penalties, damages, and attorney's fees and costs. This is because there is no bright line test for any age-restrictive regulation: the law is bereft of any standards or guidance to make a reasonable, predictable risk-assessment or likelihood of success. Each case depends on the facts and surrounding circumstances. In other words, each case is a test-case. In sum, the penalties are so severe that prudent counsel would admonish all to eliminate age-restrictive rules and regulations.

Children are as protected as any other protected class. Thus, a simple way to test a rule for FHA compliance is this: insert any other protected class in the place of "children" when testing a rule and regulation. For example, a common past rule (and no longer a valid one) is "all children under 14 years of age must be accompanied by an adult resident when in the pool area." Then, how does this sound: "All Methodists must be accompanied by an adult resident ...." Obviously, such a rule is patently violative of the FHA.

It is also a violation of the FHAA to express to agents, brokers, employees, prospective sellers, or renters a preference, (e.g. "... gosh, if I had my druthers, I would rather not rent to families"). Another issue is use of selective advertisements, or denying information about housing opportunities to particular segments of the housing market because of their race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or

national origin, (example, in an area overwhelmingly populated by non-English speakers, advertising only in English language publications). Other violations will be found where there are ads or statements made regarding applicants, including: "mature person;" stating an aversion to "families with children" or "teenagers in the building;" advertisements stating non more than "one child;" or, stating that the community owner does not "rent to children." Posting "Adult Community: at the entrance to a non-exempt community also violates the FHAA. Use of the word "adult" without more, constitutes a violation of the FHAA. There are no such thins as adult manufactured home communities, and use of the phrase is deemed to chill family applicants from applying for tenancy in them.

The various rules cited by the courts as impermissibly restricting access or denying the use of the communities' facilities and/or areas on the basis of age, included the following. If your rules contain any of the following restrictions, or any rules similar to them, it is strongly advised that a legal advisor conversant with the FHAA (and implanting regulations and judicial and administrative interpretations) be promptly consulted.

  • Children under the age of fourteen (14) years old shall not be allowed to ride a bicycle on the community streets without the accompaniment of an adult registered to the manufactured home in which they reside;
  • Children under the age of eight (8) years old must be confined to a play area in the rear fenced yard of the family residence;
  • Children shall not be allowed to play on community streets, or in any other common are areas; Residents under the age of eighteen (18) years old shall not be permitted to use the recreation building (clubhouse) or any other recreational facilities without the accompaniment of an adult registered to the manufactured home in which they reside;
  • Residents under the age of eighteen (18) years old must be accompanied by the registered resident adult from the same household in order to use any of the recreational facilities or recreational building (clubhouse);
  • Residents and visitors under the age of eighteen (18) years old may use the swimming pool and sun deck during the hours of 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. (noon) every day. Residents and visitors under the age of eighteen (18) years old are not permitted around the pool or sun deck after 12 noon;Residents and visitors under the age of eighteen (18) years old are not permitted to use the saunas or therapeutic jet pool at any time;
  • Children under the age of fourteen (14) years old must be accompanied by a registered resident adult to be allowed to ride a bicycle in the community streets;The adult resident host must accompany all guests of their manufactured home who use the recreation building (clubhouse) or any of the recreational facilities of the community;
  • Children under the age of fourteen (14) years old must be accompanied by the registered resident adult from the same household in order to use any of the recreational facilities or recreational building (clubhouse);
  • When using the clubhouse, persons under ten (10) years old must be accompanied by an adult resident;
  • Use of the billiards room was restricted to residents over eighteen (18) years old;
  • Use of the spa was prohibited to children under eighteen (18) years old;
  • Use of the pool by children fourteen (14) years old and under required accompaniment by a resident;
  • Bicycle riding by anyone is prohibited unless accompanied by adult resident parent or adult host;
  • Parent or resident child or resident host must accompany children at all times in the pool or pool area.
  • Guests and residents under the age of eighteen (18) years old are permitted to use the swimming pool and sun deck from the hours of 9 a.m. to 12 noon only and must be accompanied by the parent or resident child or resident host;
  • No one under the age of eighteen (18) years old is permitted in the billiard room at any time;
  • No one under the age of fourteen (14) years old is allowed to use the Jacuzzi;
  • At 2 p.m. children are to be out of the pool area;
  • Children are not to walk around the community without adult supervision;
  • Minors under sixteen (16) years old are not permitted in the therapeutic pool;
  • For safety, children are not to ride bicycles, roller skate, skateboard, play in the street, play in RV storage, plan in car wash or wander around the community;
  • Children under with (8) years old shall be confided to a play area in the rear fenced yard of the family residence.

The court held that these rules were not based on compelling business necessity and did not represent the least restrictive intrusions on familial status rights in promoting a health and safety interest. Having held that these rules were unlawful, the issues remaining for trial in the Plaza Mobile Estates case included damages, punitive damages, civil penalties, injunctive relief and attorney's fees and costs for the private plaintiffs.

While the action had been brought as a class claim (in which all of possibly thousands of affected residents could have been included in damages awards), class certification efforts were defeated, allowing only the named parties to seek damages.

The court's comments regarding the invalidation of these rules is telling and troubling. The court stated the age-restrictive rules were facially discriminatory. In other words, no matter how administered, the rules were invalid as drafted. Even if never enforced , such rules might dissuade a prospective applicant from applying for tenancy. These rules "...treat children, and thus, families with children differently and less favorably than adults-only households." "Describ[ing] parks as 'adult' parks are clear examples of illegal steering. Although they are not outright refusals to sell or rent or families with children, they indicate a preference for adults only and certainly discourage families with children from applying."

Considering the various age restrictive rules, they fall into three categories: (1) absolute prohibitions, (2) adult supervision requirements, and (3) hours of access restrictions.

Absolute prohibitions

The absolute prohibitions include those rules that (1) prohibit all children under 18 (or 21) years old from using the billiard room and from riding bicycles, (2) prohibit all children under 16 (or 18) years old from using the therapeutic pool, (3) prohibit all children under 14 (or 18) years old from using the sauna or Jacuzzi, (4) require all children under 8 years old to be confined to rear fenced yard of family residence, and (5) prohibit all children from playing on community streets and any other common areas.

The court held that absolute prohibitions such as the foregoing are illegal. The regulations are not the least restrictive means to achieve health and safety objectives ("...prohibiting all 'children' from playing in common areas ... cannot be justified"). The same applies with the billiard room ("... it is unclear how a 17-year-old's access to a billiard room is any more hazardous to ... health or safety that a 22-year-old's access").

Supervision restrictions

The fundamental premise adopted by the court is that "[A]ny concerns that defendants may have are not necessarily linked to age, and any concerns about problem behavior can be address with the use of rules." Thus, the court invalidated blanket prohibitions of all 15-year-olds from using the therapeutic pool and all 13-year-olds from using the sauna or Jacuzzi

In certain instances adult supervision might less restrictively advance health and safety concerns ("assuming arguendo that defendants' concerns were more logically linked to the age restrictions, requiring adult supervision rather than imposing an absolute ban is clearly a less restrictive means ..."). But where to set the limit is uncertain. California regulations state:

"Where no lifeguard service is provided, a warning sign shall be placed in plain view and shall state 'Warning – No Lifeguard on Duty' with clearly legible letters at least 10.2 centimeters (4 inches) high. In addition, the sign shall also state 'Children Under the Age of 14 Should not Use Pool Without an Adult in Attendance."

Based on the Plaza Mobile Estates decision, it is needlessly legally risky to impose any supervision requirement. Clearly, a 14 year age limit for an adult supervision is not enforceable, not legal, and constitutes a violation of the FHA, despite former administrative decisions suggesting the contrary and California regulations cited above. Yet, the need for an age limit is strikingly clear. The same rule applies to use of spas and whirlpools. Certainly an adult supervision requirement should be reasonable[1], but eh court has ruled that such concerns are fro the parents, not the management.

A few apparently unassailable precepts

Given that this case raises many more questions than it answers, the ability to promulgate and rely on age-restrictive rules for access and supervision are certainly less than a matter of clarity. While the previous rulings concerning the enforceability of age-restrictive rules are in some doubt, a few precepts can be stated with some reliability. The first is that an outright prohibition of use or access to any facility or amenity cannot be allowed. Setting up selected hours for usage of a facility of amenity cannot be allowed. Less certain is the ability to promulgate rules requiring adult supervision of children of varying ages for use of facilities or amenities. It would appear that no supervision can be mandated for areas such as clubhouse, billiard room, library or common areas.

Establishing minimum age requirements for supervision: A foray into the uncertain

The "14 and under" requirement of California regulations for pool supervision is a should not a must provision. Hence, management cannot require supervision of 14 years of age and under. The only clearly legal position is not to require supervision, and let it be for the parents to take personal accountability and responsibility for their children. The court makes this statement:

"... there is nothing magical about the age 18 or 14 years old if defendants' concerns are for the protection of the health and safety of the children or other residents in using recreational facilities or the swimming pool or riding bicycles. Such concerns could be addressed with the use of rules. Moreover, rather than being connected to such ages, bicycle and pool safety would be better served with a proficiency requirement."

The courts have intervened on occasion to require discrimination against children for their own good and government does so all the time. For example, you cannot vote until you are 18, drink alcohol until you are 21, cannot drive until you are 16.[2] However, housing providers subject to the FHA may not rely on or use the same governmentally-established restrictions in developing their rules and regulations despite the dangers posed by the common area facilities.

Another example: Pedestrian injuries are the second greatest cause of harm to children from five to 14 years of age. See the National Safe Kids Campaign Bicycle Injury Fact Sheet, September, 1997.[3] However, it is illegal to have a rule and regulations which states that "children are not to walk around the community without adult supervision."

Is it unreasonable to require adult supervision within the common areas of a manufactured home community? It would seem that such a rule is reasonable. However, for a community owner, such a rule violates the FHA. On the other hand the Consumer Products safety Commission urges supervision of children while on a playground for example (Consumer Product Safety Commission, Public Playground Safety Checklist, CPSC Document #327: "10. Carefully supervised children on playgrounds to make sure they're safe"). The federal law states that the parents are responsible for their children, not the management.

Previously sustained rules

The courts have previously allowed the following rules. This information may be largely historical at this juncture, for it remains unclear whether or not they remain viable in light of the Plaza Mobile Estates decision (these rules were sustained under the previous "reasonableness" test, not the "compelling interest" basis test):

  1. Rules which bar use of a pool for children fourteen (14) years of age and less have been upheld because the prohibition implements legislative policy. HUD v. Paradise Gardens, HUDALJ 04-90-0321-1, 1992 WL 406531 (HUDALJ Oct. 15, 1992)
  2. A rule which required children under the age of fifteen (15) years to be accompanied by an adult who is at least eighteen (18) years old when using the swimming pool and exercise equipment. (HUD vs. Trace Corporation 1995 WL 434221 (H.U.D.A.L.J.)(Consent decree)).
  3. Rules have been sustained for age restricted access as to power tools. "...Respondents may keep the machine shop with industrial power tools accessible only to tenants who are at least fifteen (15) years of age and may require tenant children between the ages of fifteen (15) and eighteen (18) years to be accompanied by an adult who is at least eighteen (18) years old when using the machine shop. Further, Respondent may require all users of the machine shop to hve complete training on the proper use of such tools." (HUD vs. Trace Corporation, 1995 WL 434221 (H.U.D.A.L.J.)(Consent decree)).]\
  4. In the unpublished decision of United States v. Town Hall Terrace Association, 1997 WL 128353 (W.D.N.Y. 1997), the housing provider made available four pieces of exercise equipment: a multi-purpose with lifting machine, a stationary bicycle, an inclining board and a rowing machine – in its "the fitness center." Until 1992 an express policy restricted the use of the fitness center and its equipment to persons at least eighteen (18) years old. After mid-1992, this threshold was lowered to sixteen (16).[4]
  5. One case allowed for a rule requiring adult supervision of children six (6) and under while biking in a street. U.S. v. M. Westland Co., CV 93-4141, Fair Housing-Fair Lending 15,941 (HUD ALJ 1994)). Another authority states that no child should be permitted in a street on a bicycle until at least ten (10) years of age. ("Cycling should be restricted to sidewalks and paths until a child is age 10 and able to show how well he or she rides and observes the basic rules of the road. Parental and adult supervision is essential and until the traffic skills and judgment thresholds are reached by each child." The National Safe Kids Campaign Bicycle Injury Fact Sheet, September, 1997).

But under the more recent Plaza Mobile Estates decision, the past allowances provide no basis on which to write your rules and regulations.

Don't blame the court!

However, it is too much to criticize or impugn the court for adhering to the letter of the law, and not legislating by "judicial fiat." The court interprets what the law is and does not legislate. That is the job of Congress and more pointedly in this case HUD (in its rule-making powers). The FHA prohibits discrimination, period. The federal law makes NO exceptions; exceptions to familial status rights is the job of HUD. It is not the court's duty. The court is not the Legislature.

The need for uniform guidelines to inform the housing providers of permissible restrictions

HUD should provide guidance for housing providers and establish bright line tests for common sense age-restrictive rules. HUD should defer to other legislative judgments made for child protection by allowing community owners to replicate existing laws in their rules and regulations. Model regulations for protection of the young could be published. HUD could establish a rule pre-approval procedure.

Community owners just want to comply with the law and provide reasonable requirements for protection of children. But now, even experienced lawyers cannot intelligibly predict the enforceability of any age-restrictive rules. At this time, attaining any ascribed legitimacy of a rule only follows after an expensive legal defense with a heavy burden of proof requiring compelling business necessity. A conciliation agreement binds the complainant. If another resident complains the next day, the conciliation agreement is worthless as a defense to the rule. This is an inconceivably inefficient manner of testing rule validity. The costs to business in such concerns vastly outweigh the benefit to be achieved. The cost to the consumer in spreading the expense of this exercise could be largely obviated if the housing provider had some guidance in defining acceptable rules for promotion of health and safety. The suggestion of administering proficiency tests is a null and void concept. The liability for negligently administering such tests, seeking and paying for qualified testers, and then excluding the non-proficient residents will not be pursued by a single housing provider.

What can we do? Even in the absence of specific rules, educational materials may help parents understand common risks associated with youth. When educational information is provided as an adjunct to an activity rather than a rule restricting an activity, the chance of a claim of discriminatory preference is less likely to be made. For example, when a community owner offers such educational material from organizations who seek better protection of children, (e.g., police departments, charitable organizations, etc.) the community owner is providing a service – disseminating information and facts – not discriminating against children.[5]

You may also consider consulting with HUD in advance of amending rules and regulations. IF HUD even informally opines that a proposed policy is not defensible, or that no comment can be offered, at least the community owner can better assess the risk faced with a new rule and regulation. For example, if a resident complains that a particular resident who has open sores due to infection with the AIDS virus desires to use the swimming pool, can the management require that resident to stay out of the pool?

When faced with the question, the manger called to advise that she was not sure how to proceed. While administrative regulations require a doctor's letter stating that no public health or safety risk was posed by the patient's use of the pool, I consulted with HUD before announcing the management policy.

Finally

All the community owner wants is to know what the law is! What we do know is certain rules, certain practices reflecting what the law is not. But it is grossly unfair to relegate the duty to set standards on management. Having read this article, can you now, safely amend your rules to impose such a rule? No. No attorney can give an absolute assurance that such a rule will be sustained until ruled valid in a court. Until a court actually rules on the validity of the rule, or HUD or DFEH offers guidance on their interpretation of the rule, there can be no assurance of what an will not be permitted in developing age-restrictive rules and regulations. The best policy is to eliminate any and all age restrictive rules and regulations to avoid FHA claims.

Reprinted with permission from Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association (WMA) "Reporter", June 2008.

Terry Dowdall has specialized in manufactured home communities' law since 1978. His firm, Dowdall Law Office, APC is located in Orange County and Sacramento, with a practice limited exclusively to the manufactured housing industry. Mr. Dowdall serves as a legal advisor on WMA's Legislative Committee and has authored publications for the Continuing Legal Education of the State Bar. He is a frequent contributor to the WMA Reporter and facilitator at WMA educational seminars. He can be reached at 714-532-2222 (Orange) or 916-444-0777 (Sacramento).

[1] According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, "...The main hazard from hot tubs and spas is the same as that from pools – drowning. Since 1980, CPSC has reports of more than 700 deaths in spas and hot tubs. About one-third of those were drownings to children under age five. Consumers should keep a locked safety cover on the spa whenever it is not in use and keep children away unless there is constant adult supervision. Hot Tub Temperatures – CPSC knows of several deaths from extremely hot water (approximately 110 degrees Fahrenheit) in a spa. High temperatures can cause drowsiness which may lead to unconsciousness, resulting in drowning. In addition, raised body temperature can lead to heat stroke and death. In 1987, CPSC helped develop requirements for temperature controls to make sure that spa water temperatures never exceed 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Pregnant women and young children should not use a spa before consulting with a physician. ... "CPSC Document #5112 "Spas, Hot Tubs, and Whirlpools Safety Alert".

[2] Municipal curfew regulations abound which restrict children. Los Angeles is typical. No one under 18 years of age is permitted in public places during school hours (" ... present in or upon the public streets, ... or any place open to the public during the hours of 8:30 am and 1:30 pm"). L.A.M.C. 45.04. The same restrictions apply after 10 pm. ("... any minor under the age of eighteen years to be present in or upon any public street, ... between the hours of 10:00 pm on any day and sunrise of the immediately following day; ...."). L.A.M.C. 45.03. Regulations for pool halls E.g. 17 (Midland Mi. Mun. Code Sec. 15-34) and 18 (1063-B. Pool halls. Public Laws of Maine) year age requirement), are commonly promulgated for the health and safety concerns for minors. It is unsafe for a park owner to rely on local or state laws in this respect in drafting rules and regulations.

[3] "[P]edestrian injury is the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death among children ages 5 to 14. While the majority of pedestrian deaths and injuries are traffic-related, children ages 0 to 2 are more likely to suffer non-traffic-related pedestrian injuries, including those occurring in driveways, parking lots or on sidewalks. Although pedestrian injuries are not as common as motor vehicle occupant injuries, a disproportionate number of the injuries sustained by child pedestrians are severe. Between 25 and 50 percent of child pedestrian injuries require hospital admission. Children ages 5 to 9 are at the greatest risk from traffic–related pedestrian death and injury. Nearly one-third of all children ages 5 to 9 who are killed in traffic crashes are pedestrians").

[4] According to the U.S. Products Safety Commission: "The U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that between 1985 and 1989, the latest period for which data are available, there were 1,200 amputations of children's fingers because of contact with exercise bikes. Most children were under the age of five. Many of the injuries occurred when the child's fingers touched the moving bike wheel or the chain and sprocket assembly. The Commission is concerned about the severity of injuries to children, especially because the hazard may not be obvious. Therefore, the commission warns parents always to keep children away from exercise bikes. Never use a bike without a chain guard, and when not using the bike, store it where children cannot get to it. Children's fingers can be amputated if they touch moving parts of exercise bike." Prevent Finger Amputations to Children From Exercise Bikes: Safety Alert: CPSC Document #5028.

[5] For example, educational material exist which explain that young children have peripheral vision which is two-thirds that of an adult; they have difficulty determining the source of sounds; traffic noises and sirens may be confusing; they may not understand that an automobile may seriously hurt or kill them; most children cannot understand a complex chain of events; children believe that all grownups will look out for them; they think that if they can see an adult driving a car toward them, the driver must be able to see them; children often mix fantasy with reality – they may give themselves superhuman powers and o not understand that a moving vehicle can hurt them; they have difficulty judging the speed and distance of oncoming vehicles. 

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