Guest Commentary: Just Say No to Age-Restricted Housing


by Eric Gelber

The Vanguard has recently run a number of articles touting the virtues of the West Davis Active Adult Community (WDAAC), a proposed senior housing development in northwest Davis. Two of the articles offer legal opinions on the so-called Davis Based Buyers Program, which would establish preferences for Davis residents and other categories of prospective buyers of the for-sale homes in WDAAC. I would suggest that, regardless of legalities, exclusionary and restricted housing is not an option the City—or voters through the Measure J/R process—should approve for meeting its housing needs.

Senior housing is, by definition, restricted housing. But for an explicit exception written into federal and state fair housing laws, such housing would be unlawful because it otherwise violates the prohibition against discrimination based on familial status—i.e., against families with children. Because something is lawful, however, does mean it is sound policy. WDAAC is proposed for 325 for-sale units and 150 affordable apartment units. 80% of the for-sale units and all of the apartment units would be age-restricted. That means only 65 out of a total of 475 housing units (less than 14%) would not be age-restricted—considerably less than the misleading 20% figure suggested by the developer.

Housing that meets the needs of many seniors—e.g., small to moderate size, single-story, universal design—also meets the needs of other groups for whom housing is in short supply—including smaller households, lower income households, households including people with disabilities. The proposed mix of housing with the features and amenities of WDAAC, including the percentage of affordable units, is commendable. But the same housing could be built and meet the needs of many seniors without also discriminating against and excluding other groups having similar or identical needs.

On top of age-based restrictions, WDAAC would additionally restrict purchases of 90% of the for-sale units to current Davis residents and others with a purported connection to Davis. The reason for
this Davis Based Buyers Program is to bolster the argument that WDAAC addresses the intent of Measure R to meet internal housing needs. That argument does not necessarily hold up.

Residency preferences are permitted but they are closely scrutinized to determine if—by design or effect—they substantially disadvantage protected classes. In a community that has a significant white majority, for example, a residency preference would necessarily disadvantage and have the effect of discriminating against racial minorities, whether intended or not.

Davis does not have a white majority of a magnitude typical of most communities in which courts have invalidated residency preferences. Nonetheless, it is worth noting, for example, that Davis’ population is 2.8% Black, compared to 5.9% for the State and 6.5% for Sacramento. Davis’ population is 14.3% Latino compared to 38.6% for California and 46.1% for Woodland. Thus, a preference for Davis residents would necessarily have a disparate impact on, and disadvantage Blacks and Latinos. Similar disparities also exist for graduates of Davis High School and UCD, who would similarly receive priorities under the proposed WDAAC policy. Even if these disparities pass legal muster, the WDAAC policy will likely hinder rather than foster local diversity.

Other features of the Davis Based Buyers Program likewise will do little to address internal needs. A priority for graduates of the Davis school system or UCD means, for example, that an individual who lived in Davis during their senior year in high school or for 4 years of college but otherwise had no prior or subsequent connection to the City (or perhaps even the State) would have priority over lifelong residents of Woodland, Dixon or Sacramento, even those who may have previously worked in Davis.

The Davis Based Buyers Program would also prioritize local employees. Housing for the local workforce is clearly a need. But, consider that 80% of the for-sale units are restricted to homeowners who are at or nearing retirement age. The policy will do little to benefit those local workers most in need of affordable homes—those recently entering the workforce, those raising families, etc. A preference for close relatives of Davis residents, who may have no other prior connection to Davis, similarly will do little to meet local housing needs.
Again, just because a housing restriction is legal does not make it good policy. Davis should value and promote inclusive communities, not restricted-access communities. We should seek to address the needs of seniors, people with disabilities, local workers, families with children, households with limited incomes, and others in all housing development. (A visitability or universal design policy or ordinance would be a good start.) We can meet local housing needs without developing segregated enclaves and without excluding “outsiders.”

About the Author: Eric Gelber is a longtime resident of Davis and disability rights attorney, and would qualify for senior housing.

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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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11 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: Just Say No to Age-Restricted Housing”

  1. Todd Edelman

    Interesting analysis. WDAAC is also sustainable mobility-restricted housing: The Draft EIR projects a non-automobile modal share of 2.85% for trips off site. Assuming – generously – that 1.5% of this is by bicycle, it means that this share is 2000% lower than the general bicycle modal share goal for Davis by 2020; if the modal share goal for seniors is a more realistic 10%, then there’s still a 600% differential.

    I hope that this never gets through Council later this year: For my part – as a member of the Bicycling, Transportation and Street Safety Commission – you’ll see in the January 2018 minutes that my view was summarized as “The WDAAC has no meaningful connectivity.” What this summarizes is my view presented at the meeting that its location at the periphery is not only a middle finger to Davis cycling policy, it is against the City social policy as well, as it makes it difficult for people to visit their friends, parents or grandparents there by bike and especially by foot or by bus (30 to 40 minutes to Downtown), and spontaneously… and even worse for residents to visit anywhere meaningful off-site, aside from the Marketplace. The North Ponds are across the street from near the west end of the property, but the developer scoffed at a suggestion to create a grade-separated crossing there; it’s also part of the Davis Bike Loop. Yes, it’s a short walk to Sutter across parking lots (the health care facility is probably the most car-dependent location in Davis), but if that’s the most important thing what kind of message does that send?

    I am not clear on the motivations of the developers. In my optimistic, creative yet somewhat-uninformed opinion the city-county-school district blocks between A St. and B St & 5th and 7th, plus between B and C & 5th and 6th are the ideal place for integrated housing for all groups who need it, and there’s nothing wrong with a few nicer, non-subsidized apartments here as well since e.g. rich kids benefit as much as poorer ones from co-integration.

    A lot of this land is parking lots already, plus a park which could possibly be closed temporarily for construction purposes: I would set up some nice mobile office buildings – such as the ones already used by Public Works on 5th St – as offices are re-built or modified as necessary: For example, City Hall staff or some of them as some structures were built next to and over parts of the building fronting 5th, next turn would be for DJUSD and County offices, perhaps the Senior Center and MLK schoool as well. Everything would stay functional in more or the less location.

    It would save huge money if the place had virtually no private vehicle parking for residents (except for what’s needed to fulfill ADA and also with exemptions for certain trades and jobs): This would save 15 to 20% compared to the typical project (parking in structures can cost $40,000 at least per space). There could be some parking for visitors, e.g. to function as parking for Central Park, city employees and so on, as long as it didn’t impact the area too much.

    Seniors who live here would be able to walk everywhere: To the Senior Center (which would get a relatively well-equipped clinic), the pool onsite, the sports field onsite, the city hall onsite… could get involved with the MLK continuation school as well… and within the time I wrote this comment walk back and forth to Central Park and closer parts of Downtown several times over.

    Can the City make the land and area available at low cost to developers who could accommodate very high mandates for affordable housing, since they’d not have to buy any land or build parking? Should the City own it all?

  2. Ken A

    I would be interested to hear if Eric and others against age-restricted housing in West Davis are in favor of banning ALL age-restricted housing in town (so we could allow younger people to rent in Rancho Yolo or allowing the Carlton down 5th from Rancho Yolo to do by the bed leasing to younger people).

    1. WesC

      I am not so sure there would be very many younger takers for a bed in the Carlton.  Rent starts out at $3495+/month for a 1 bedroom studio with a bathroom and closet but no kitchen.  If they are the type of person who requires Assisted living, Memory Care, or Respite Care, I am also not so sure they would be a UCD student.

    2. Howard P

      West Davis, or West Campus?

      I see no problem in attempting to ban Rancho Yolo from being senior only (except they have precedence, and as Eric points out, there are exceptions under State/Fed law)… we were denied housing @ an apartment complex @ Fifth and Pole Line in 1979 (0.25% vacancy rate at that time)…

      But Rancho Yolo is not seeking entitlements at this time… apples and oranges… Carlton is not a housing project, per se… mainly a ‘medical’ one… suspect if a young person had early stage memory/other issues, they could live @ Carlton.

      Your questions fail on so many grounds…

    3. Eric Gelber

      Ken A –
      Your questions are good ones and would require another article to fully address. The short answer is that I have no problem with assisted living and other housing that provides services and supports for seniors, people with disabilities, or other special needs populations. Senior housing developments like WDAAC, that have exclusions based solely on age, are something else, however.
      In the late ‘80s, when the federal Fair Housing Act was proposed to be amended to add familial status and disability as protected classes, the exception for senior housing was included as a concession to senior constituencies who didn’t want to lose the right to discriminate against families with children.
      So, like it or not, the exemption for senior housing is the law. But, when it comes to land use decisions—as when local government or voter approval is necessary for a particular housing development—I believe, as a matter of policy, that proposals for segregated, restricted housing  developments that discriminate against otherwise protected groups should be rejected.

  3. PhilColeman

    The irony that is touched on, but not given a focus, is that these social engineering efforts further the problem instead of solving it. We go around in a perpetual circle of public clamor while the problems remain essentially unsolved and becomes worse.

    Let’s go back to the indisputable fact that anytime government authority gives preference to any class authority legally discriminates against all others. Coming from a culture of promoting cycling as a means of transportation and recreation, I’m favorable disposed to any notion that supports everybody riding bicycles. And I’m therefore guilty of discrimination against a disadvantaged class of persons, a class of citizens that bulges at the far end of our demographic spectrum.

    Let’s imagine government intervention being taken to advance this noble social advancement of alternate transportation, with all its many gains realized. In doing so, we further discriminate against a large number of persons who are physically impaired, who can’t even get on a bike– even though they would love to have the ability to do so. Driving a car is the only practical form of transportation they have. In fact, it’s their one final form of independence they possess, something on which every zealot cyclist remains tone deaf. For the record, I’m 76 years old and can still cycle long distances with skill and ease.

    We favor seniors while simultaneously legislating penalties for just being young. Students demand “affordable” housing, so we give it to them. “We,” being the vast majority of the local permanent population, the core of the community who pay multiple mortgages of a transient population in addition to their own. The extra cost born by the locals requires them to delay getting their own home, because they can’t afford one. So they demand subsidized housing, too.  And so it goes.

    Federal law mandates that public works funds be dedicated to curb cuts and ramps at the expense of bike path construction and maintenance or filling pot-holes.

    Commuters don’t enjoy sitting two hours a day in a car, but have to get to work. They live in remote areas where it’s cheaper to buy. Why can’t they live near their place of employment, and walk or bike to work? Housing is too expensive, as home purchases fees and surcharges attached to home and property, to give preferential treatment to other “disadvantaged” social classes. Social engineering advocacy is concentrated in urban regions with infrastructure, where they can be heard.

    It ends up with all social reform zealots pulling in different directions. Delays, confusion, and competition for the scarce public dollar follows, and none of the issues end up being addressed  adequately.


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