For some people, one of the attractive aspects of moving to a senior living community, such as a continuing care retirement community (CCRC, or life plan community) is the opportunity to live among people who are at a similar place in life. This, of course, isn’t to say that diversity among neighbors isn’t appealing or valuable, but some seniors find it desirable to live near others who also are enjoying the retirement lifestyle. So, how exactly do the minimum age requirements within these senior living communities work?

The laws permitting minimum age requirements

As part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) was passed, prohibiting housing discrimination based on age, race, nationality, religion, gender, handicap, or familial status (i.e., having children under age 18 living in the home).

But what about retirement communities that require residents be 55 years of age or older in order to reside there? How is an age retirement legal under the FHA?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is responsible for establishing regulations around housing and community development in this country, created an exemption within the FHA. The Housing for Older Persons Act (HOPA) is essentially a carveout that protects senior housing communities from being sued for age discrimination by those who are under the community’s minimum age requirement.

>> Related: What is the Happiest Age? (You Might Be Surprised by the Answer!)

The specifics around HOPA exemptions

To qualify for a HOPA exemption, a senior living community or facility must be:

  • Designed and operated to house “elderly” persons (as part of a state or federal housing program)
  • Occupied solely by people who are 62 years of age or older
  • Intended and operated for housing those who are 55 years of age or older (a so-called “55 and over” community)

For 55 and over communities, there are some additional requirements and restrictions in order to fall under the HOPA exemption to the FHA. They must meet all of the following conditions:

  • At least 80 percent of the community’s housing units must have at least one occupant who is 55 years of age or older.
  • The community must comply with their published policies and procedures demonstrating that they intend to operate as “55 and older” housing.
  • The community must adhere to HUD’s requirements on resident age verification every two years.

This required age verification can be done using an accepted state, national, or international document such as a birth certificate, driver’s license, passport, immigration card, or military identification. HUD also has established a “self-certification” option for those who may be unable to provide valid documentation of their age. In such circumstances, HUD permits prospective residents to assert within the lease, application affidavit, or ​another signed document that at least one occupant of the household is at least 55 years old.

>> Related: Fit for Move-In?: The CCRC Health Evaluation Requirement

Communities can create their own rules as well

Once a senior living community meets these HOPA exemption requirements, it can legally create its own additional rules for how the community’s age restrictions will be defined. They simply must remain in compliance with applicable state laws.

For instance, a community can make their age-restrictions even stricter than the HOPA requirements. If desired, they can mandate that all residents must be over the age of 55, or that 80 percent of the housing units must include a resident over the age of 60, as an example.

But isn’t this reverse age discrimination? There is indeed some irony that age discrimination and “ageism” are typically considered to be bias against older people. So, why does the government allow age-restricted communities to exist? Well, the short answer is because such communities already existed prior to the passage of the FHA in 1968, so the HOPA carveout was created to allow them to continue.

>> Related: The Invisible Senior: Confronting Ageism in the U.S.

Important exceptions to senior living communities’ age requirements

Under the HOPA exemption, senior living communities can refuse to sell or rent to prospective residents who do not meet their age requirement. They are also legally permitted to refuse entry to seniors who have custody of minor children. This exemption does not protect communities from liability for discrimination based on other factors like race, religion, or disability, however.

In addition, HOPA has some required exceptions if a senior is “associated” with a person with a physical or mental disability. Let’s say, for instance, that a senior meets the age requirement for a community, but they are the legal guardian of a disabled adult-child who does not meet the age requirement. In such a case, the community must make an exception to their minimum age policy to accommodate that disabled adult.

The HOPA exemption can get a little murkier in cases where one person is age-qualified but they have a younger spouse or partner who does not meet the community’s age requirement. For this reason, most 55 and over communities only require that one person within the household be at least 55. Thus, if a spouse or partner doesn’t meet the age requirement, it is not an issue.

For 62 and over communities, however, the rules are stricter. In these types of communities, everyone in the household must be at least 62 years old. The only age exceptions for 62 and over communities are live-in aides, nurses, or other healthcare providers.

>> Related: The Pros & Cons of 55+ Active Adult Communities

Age restrictions and intergenerational communities

Some 55 and over communities are taking a unique approach to age-restricted housing, which actually encourages intergenerational living. For example, one senior living community in Cleveland permits a select number of college and graduate school students with financial need to live rent-free in the community. In exchange, these students contribute service hours to the community. These hours could include things like musical performances, teaching an art class, or simply spending quality time with the older residents.

Intergenerational programs, such as this, are immensely beneficial for both the younger and the older participants. But for the senior living community, there is an additional perk to these programs: They get younger people onto the senior living campus, which, somewhat ironically, is a great way to attract younger senior residents. 

For senior living communities that establish a lower age restriction (or even no age restrictions) in up to 20 percent of the development to enable these intergenerational housing programs and attract younger residents, they do have to be cautious. Here’s why: To maintain their HOPA exemption, at least 80 percent of occupied units within a 55+ community must have at least one resident over the age of 55.

Some residents who meet this age requirement will inevitably move elsewhere or eventually pass away. Thus, to maintain a cushion with the community’s required resident age ratios, many communities allow only a small percentage of units in the community without someone 55 or older (“younger households,” so to speak) — perhaps something like 10 or 15 percent of the community.

>> Related: Not Your Granny’s Retirement Home: Selling CCRCs to Younger Retirees

Is an age-restricted community right for you?

Living in a community of mostly seniors is an attractive proposition to many retirees. Not only is it a ready-made pool of potential friends who are at a similar place in life, it can have other perks too.

Typically, senior living communities have very low crime rates, for example. And in some states, those residing in an age-restricted community may not be required to pay higher property taxes to fund area schools, which can be especially attractive to those living on a fixed income.

If you are considering an age-restricted senior living community, it is important to understand the rules and regulations around age requirements, however. It can impact you and your family, as well as the resale of your home in certain circumstances.

Be sure to ask which of the HUD/HOPA exemptions described above a community complies with before signing on the dotted line. It is also wise to consider various types of senior living communities to determine which you prefer.

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