Monday, April 30, 2007

So why do we allow 55-plus communities, anyway?

  Why does American law allow housing discrimination against younger (under 55) people?  This is a follow up to Friday's post.

Gatedcommunity    Law does not allow a housing development to be restricted to "whites only" (as used to be common before the Fair Housing Act of 1968) or "Catholics only" or "native-born Americans only."  So why did the 1988 amendments to the Fair Housing Act make "older people only" acceptable?  The most cynical rationale is that older people are well organized and have political clout, so this is why they got their exception.  But is there a more reputable justification? 

   Fifty years ago, one might have said that older people are among the poorest and least powerful members of society, and thus a small benefit to them -- we give them a chance to live among their "kind" -- is a small bone we toss to them.  But this sort of argument makes little sense today, when older persons are just about as well off financially as younger people are.  Similarly, an argument that they are a small, underprivileged minority that needs protection from the ruthlessness of the market makes no sense today, with about a quarter of the population over 55.  From my perspective in Florida, older people have always had market clout, of course, and this power is growing in places across the nation, as the famous "baby boom" generation passes to old age.  Is it because older people "deserve" the option to live in discriminatory housing?  But this merely begs the question.      

  The fact that law gives a special privilege to older persons is especially odd in this era, when real estate developers create housing that is designed to appeal especially to certain categories of people -- families with kids, urban yuppies, and even gay couples.  There is no doubt that even without the 55-plus law, many condo and housing developments (and not just in Florida and Arizona) would be overwhelmingly filled with older persons.  Why does law give a group that holds considerable power in the market even more power, including the power to exclude those who aren't like them?  Another cynical argument, which I discussed on Friday, is that local governments like the idea of developments that discourage government-service-demanding children.  But such a craven argument falls within the same category as the residents who tried to enforce no-blacks covenants in the 1940s and restaurants that tried to defy the Civil Rights Act in the mid-1960s.

  I will say it boldly.  In this age of a crowded nation of families and poorer persons searching for affordable housing, there is no cogent social policy justification for a law that permits developments in which younger people are excluded.

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