Are You Old Enough To Live Here?

Federal bill designed to open up housing to families seems to have exactly the opposite affect. FAIR HOUSING FALLOUT

WHEN Vincent Molloy, a single father, moved into a stucco ranch in Lakeside Woodlands subdivision a month ago, his two-year-old son Johnny became not only the newest child on the cul-de-sac, but also the most famous. For months the toddler had been making local headlines because of a legal debate over his right to live in another stucco ranch on a cul-de-sac five miles away, where he was the only child in the ``active adult'' community of Arborwood at Summertree.

The homeowners' association warned Mr. Molloy that his son's presence violated by-laws excluding children from the 289-home community. The group ordered Molloy to move out of the house he had purchased for his father, who had since died.

Molloy countered that the new federal Fair Housing Act, which took effect March 12 and bans most age-restricted housing, gave his son a legal right to live there.

In May, in one of the first tests of the law, a judge ruled that Arborwood, 40 miles north of St. Petersburg, fits one of several exceptions to the law and can continue to bar children. He gave the father and son 30 days to move.

Although the law makes it illegal to discriminate against families with children in selling or renting housing, it allows communities to exclude minors if all residents are 62 and over, or if 80 percent of homes have one resident 55 or over. Developments meeting age requirements must also provide ``significant facilities and services to meet the physical and social needs of older persons.'' These might include transportation to shopping centers, a community dining hall, or regular visits by health-care providers.

Yet many homeowners' associations and attorneys are confused by the vagueness of the word ``significant.'' So is Molloy.

On a cloudless afternoon a week after his move, with packing boxes still stacked in the dining room, Molloy took time out to relax with Johnny in their new living room and talk about the law.

``If somebody wants to live in a place that's 62 and over, or if a condo has all elderly people who want to retreat because of noise or health or something, that's fine,'' he says. ``But Arborwood is designed for very healthy people. The association claimed their facilities were designed for older people. But a swimming pool is a swimming pool. A tennis court is a tennis court.''

Molloy worries that as more adults-only developments amend their by-laws to become 55-and-over communities, ``all of Florida will be an exemption by legal maneuvers, just by doing a little flimflam on paper: Call a card room a `senior citizen card room,' call potluck dinners `congregate dining,' call in salesmen to sell investment strategies and label that `investment education for the elderly.''' He fears the intent of the law - to open up more affordable housing to families - will be undermined.

Robert Tankel, an attorney for the firm of Becker, Poliakoff & Streitfeld, which represented the Arborwood homeowners' association, defends the right of older people to live without the toys and noise of children and teen-agers.

He notes that Florida courts have consistently upheld the validity of age-restricted housing. ``Adult communities are sold as a life style,'' he says. ``Many people buy a life style, whether it's real or perceived, and the so-called retirement life style has been well accepted in the marketplace.''

Fear of losing that life style has already prompted five members of the newly formed Senior Civil Liberties Association in Clearwater, Fla., to file a federal lawsuit claiming their right to live in a ``child-free environment.''

``They are afraid this law is going to destroy their life style by eliminating the adults-only nature of the communities they live in,'' says the group's lawyer, Mark Schorr of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The suit, he explains, alleges that the Fair Housing Act ``is unconstitutional on a variety of grounds. It's vague. It constitutes taking of their property rights without due process. And it infringes on rights of privacy and association.''

Today, four months after the law took effect, many developments that lost their adults-only status find that families are not flocking to their rental and sales offices.

In developments newly open to families, the age integration can be positive. One complex, the Chapparal Apartments in Largo, Fla., frequently had vacancies when it was age-restricted. Now that families are allowed, the complex is full. The manager reports that she has not received complaints from older residents.

In another early test of the law, a judge ruled that a small mobile home community in Zephyrhills, Fla., could no longer bar children under the age of 15. The development has no clubhouse or other ``significant'' facilities and services for older residents. The judge's ruling allowed a 14-year-old honor roll student, Staci Elmer, to move back into her parents' home two months after she was forced to go to live with a married brother.

At the time of Staci's eviction, recalls her mother, Beverly Elmer, ``A judge sentenced me to jail for contempt of court because I had Staci living here. He gave my husband and me a certain number of days to either have her out of here or go to jail. They wanted that child out of the house. They didn't care if she slept on a park bench. They just said, `Get her out.'''

As a result of publicity over the case, she adds, several people sent Staci angry letters at school. Others phoned the family at home.

Despite the experience, Mrs. Elmer says, ``I believe there should be areas for older people to live. I don't object to retirement parks. But let's let them be true retirement parks. Most of the places around here aren't retirement, they're just adult.''

Enforcement of the law rests with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Individual cases must be decided after someone complains of a violation. As of June 1, HUD's Atlanta regional office had received 50 discrimination complaints, most of them from families with children who have been denied access. Thirty-seven of the complaints are from Florida.

``Nobody's happy,'' says Linda Lipthrott, a HUD spokeswoman in Atlanta. ``It's a very difficult situation. I have children, so I can sympathize with both sides. If I were a single person or an elderly person, I might not want to have children around. Yet if I were a single mother and a particular adult community was the most convenient to where I worked, but I couldn't live there, that may not be fair, either.''

Mr. Tankel, the attorney in Clearwater, sees the problem as ``a good example of the law of unintended consequences. The intent of Congress was to open up housing for people with young children. The effect has been to limit housing for people under 55. What about the 35-year-old couple with no kids? They can't live in many of these communities.''

In communities that lose their adults-only status, many residents fear that condominium fees will go up because of higher maintenance and liability costs resulting from the presence of children. Some developments must modify buildings and grounds to protect children - putting a fence around the swimming pool, or building higher railings on high-rise balconies.

Similarly, residents of communities that qualify for exemptions to the law worry that raising the minimum age to 55 will limit the resale market. And some wonder what will happen to their property if they bequeath their homes to heirs too young to live in them.

As families and condominium associations work to come to terms with the law, Tankel sees a silver lining: ``It's been a lawyer's relief act of 1989. It's been very good for business. The lawsuits involving the Fair Housing Act haven't even begun.''

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