Young women voted out of 55 plus community
Editor’s note: For protection of privacy and as per request to remain anonymous, the name of the person in this article has been omitted. For story-telling purposes, we will refer to this person as Kate and we will not refer to her with her real name.
Kate, 34, is use to moving. The stressful task of boxing up one’s life and hauling it to a new place to settle down only to be uprooted once again is all too familiar for Kate and her daughter.
However, being voted out of a local 55-plus community after the destruction of her own home in the 2017 Sonoma County wildfires amid an ongoing struggle with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), proved to be uncharted and unfamiliar waters for the Healdsburg native.
After a housing association hearing in late December for the Riverview II community in Healdsburg, the self-employed mother was unanimously denied her appeal to temporarily reside in a home owned and managed by Robert Weiss, a 55-plus local. The board gave her 70 days to vacate the community and since then she was able to find a place to rent in town.
HOA board lawyers say the community lacks the authority to grant the 55-plus exemptions that would allow Kate and her 8-year-old daughter to stay based on disability and hardship.
The scenario highlights a social issue tug of war: fire survivors struggling to find housing versus communities keeping to the rules of their 55-plus designation. The designation often comes with tax breaks, such as not having to divvy out property taxes for public schools.
HOA Covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) state that someone with a disability or a child of a community homeowner that has a disabling illness or injury can be considered as a qualifying resident even if they are not 55 or older. There is also a hardship condition that says the board may consider exemptions to the 55-plus age requirement based on changes in family relationships or health.
And while federal law, according to the Housing for Older Persons Act, says under the 80/20 law that some communities may allow a small number of residents under 55, 80 percent of the occupied units must include one resident 55 or older.
Kate and her daughter were temporarily living in the unit with Kate’s parents, who are older than 55 and were renting the home from Weiss. While Kate’s disability could provide for exemption, the HOA board pointed out that her daughter has no diagnosed disability, which would disqualify the two.
Kate provided an analogy for her experience at Riverview.
"In ancient cultures, some whose traditions and social structures still exist today, the elders of a tribe or village are considered the wisdom keepers, the most respected and revered archetypes who the younger generation called upon for counsel regarding their problems and challenges,” she said. “My experience living in the Riverview retirement community has been the exact opposite.”
HOA Board President Greg Gibbons said the board’s decision to deny her appeal was based on their attorney’s recommendation.
“On advice of our attorney, our community board of directors is following the California laws applicable to senior housing. The members of this association do not want to lose their senior housing status by failing to enforce the senior housing laws set by the state of California,” Gibbons said.
In an attempt to plea for exemption based on the CC&R disability, Kate’s therapist wrote a letter to the HOA for the hearing, vouching for her PTSD diagnosis, stating that it would be in Kate’s best interest to be able to temporarily stay at Riverview while her home is being rebuilt, which is slated to be completed this fall.
However, according to Kate, HOA members did not see the letter convincing. They pointed out that the letter did not specify that it was necessary for her to stay.
“It seemed from their perspective in sharing with us, that everybody in the community and on this board was OK with us staying except one women. Apparently she lived on the street and said, ‘I’ve seen her before and I can’t tell if she has PTSD.’ She doesn’t know what it is like to live with that on a daily basis,” Kate said.
The HOA lawyer, Barbara Zimmerman, argued in a letter to Weiss that the “CC&Rs only allows an exception to the age requirement when the person is disabled, physically or mentally, to the extent that the disability limits major life activities as set out in the statutes,” and “Just having PTSD and being better off living at Riverview II does not qualify under California law and therefore under the CC&Rs.”
Cathleen Stafford, a Healdsburg family therapist, said PTSD is disabling on a daily basis and can affect day-to-day activity.
“There are varying degrees of PTSD, but it can start with nightmares, then it can go into anxiety or depression, people can become easily startled, hyperaware and can become irritable,” Stafford said. “It can affect not only your family life but your work life as well. Someone may have different symptoms but it is all encompassing.”
Kate’s PTSD started the night of the fire when she ran from the advancing flames in her flip-flops without warning.
“I grabbed some of my daughter’s clothes and drove out of the driveway with flames everywhere. Probably within two or three minutes the whole house was on fire,” Kate recalled. “I was in shock.”
And now, “Even providing a note from my therapist stating I need the stability in order to not trigger my PTSD (didn’t seem to do much,) and now we have to pack up everything and move again,” she said.
Zimmerman’s letter later noted that in order to qualify for the disability exemption, Kate’s daughter would also have to have a qualifying, diagnosed disability.
Nevertheless, Kate and Weiss argue that an exception should have been made.
In a statement to the board during the December hearing, Weiss wrote referring to the aforementioned CC&R exemptions, “I would like to point out that part of the CC&Rs allow for this kind of situation … I am here today to ask you to just look at the circumstances and consider this family, that in one fell swoop, lost everything they owned in just minutes. If you need to consider the CC&Rs you have legal ground to allow our request, but doing what is right should really come from the heart.”
Kate said one resident had sent a letter to the HOA saying she believed this was appropriate and that it even may be a good idea to open the community to those who needed a place to stay, people like Kate, who were affected by the 2017 fires.
Zimmerman said in a letter while federal senior housing law does allow up to less than 20 percent non-senior occupancy, California law does not.
“All residents must meet the California requirements set out in the civil code or Riverview II would risk losing senior housing status. Riverview could also face the liability to other members of the association for failing to enforce CC&Rs…”
Whether or not they could have stayed at Riverview II, Kate said of her experience, “It is disheartening that they are willing to have the motive of their political agenda of their HOA supersede what is right in the heart and what should be done to support the community as a village.”