The state Supreme Court on Monday upheld the right of mobile home parks in California to limit their occupants to older residents, saying such restrictions do not violate state law.
The justices in a 5-2 decision said the age-based restrictions in mobile home parks are permissible under state civil rights statutes and another law that specifically allows parks to limit residency by age.
The ruling approved restrictions being imposed by the substantial number of parks that cater to older citizens. Recent surveys by state officials indicated that 56% of the 5,000 parks in California were limited to adults and that of those parks, 21% were restricted to persons 55 or older. The surveys also found that about 72% of all park occupants were 55 or older.
Although the court’s decision Monday gives mobile home parks broad discretion under state law to impose age-based restrictions, the practical impact of the ruling is modified greatly by a new federal fair housing law that took effect this month. The federal legislation essentially permits such discrimination only in certain specific circumstances involving adults 55 and older.
Monday’s decision was the latest action in a tangled but far-reaching Santa Barbara County case testing age-based restrictions by parks in a state where mobile homes represent 5% of the housing stock.
Three young adult women, one with a 9-year-old daughter, had challenged a restriction by a Buellton park operator barring residents under age 25.
In October, 1987, the newly realigned and more conservative high court in its first civil rights ruling held unanimously that parks could restrict their occupants to “adults only.” The justices rejected claims that such restrictions improperly reduced the availability of affordable housing to families with children.
That ruling left intact previous decisions by the court under Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird barring discrimination against families with children in apartment and condominium housing. The Legislature adopted those prohibitions in new statutes, providing exceptions for housing for senior citizens.
But the 1987 ruling did not resolve the question of whether the park, while lawfully barring children 17 and under, could also impose age-based restrictions on adults. The justices, in a rare action, voted later to rehear the case to decide this point.
The new federal fair housing law, meanwhile, prohibits discrimination against families with children, including those in mobile homes. The federal law, however, makes an exception that allows operators to continue to restrict occupancy in parks designed for seniors only--defined as persons 55 or older.
Lawyers for the mobile home park agreed that under the new federal law, parks could no longer bar families with children. But they urged the justices to go ahead and rule on the validity of age-based restrictions under state laws. If those state laws were interpreted to permit parks only to bar minors, the parks might be barred under the laws from limiting occupancy to older residents, the attorneys said.
The court majority, in an opinion by Justice John A. Arguelles, agreed that despite the federal legislation there was still a need to decide whether state law prohibited parks from adopting any age-based policy other than a bar against children.
“If state law does limit a mobile home park owner’s discretion in this fashion, then in the future mobile home parks in California might well be prohibited from adopting the type of age-based policies--i.e., a 62-years-or-older rule or a 55-years-or-older rule--which would qualify under federal law,” Arguelles wrote.
Dale E. Hanst of Santa Barbara, an attorney for the mobile home park owner in the case, praised the ruling, saying that without the decision state law would not have permitted parks to impose the seniors-only limitations allowed under federal statutes.
“Otherwise, only family parks would have been permitted in California,” Hanst said. “That just flies in the face of the current situation where there are many, many parks limited to seniors, as they have a right to be.”
Arguelles observed that in view of the “distinct characteristics” of mobile home parks--their higher percentage of older residents, the limited space, the potential lack of privacy and the expense of special protections for children--such age-based regulations were “neither irrational nor arbitrary or otherwise vulnerable to constitutional attack.”
In dissent, Justice Stanley Mosk, joined by Justice Allen E. Broussard, said state law should not be allowed to permit any age-based regulation, except to limit residence to those 18 or older.