Who would you like to be your neighbor?
I’m with Justice Morris Pashman of New Jersey, who wrote back in 1975, “A homogeneous community, one exhibiting almost total similarities of taste, habit, custom and behavior is culturally dead, aside from being downright boring.” This is H.O.M.E.’s philosophy too, particularly when it comes to age.
It was only fifty years ago that our nation made it illegal to deny housing to people based on their race, color, religion, and national origin, and later sex, disability, and familial status (that is, presence of children). The Fair Housing Act also calls for cities to take affirmative steps to be inclusive and diverse.
Seniors have been treated differently, however. It used to be more typical in our nation that children would take in parents, “maiden aunts” or bachelors.
Today, depending on region, income, or culture, only about ten percent of older adults live with their extended families, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
“Almshouses” and eventually more varied forms of housing specifically for seniors aged 62 and over were developed to accommodate infirmity, poverty, or the desire (or necessity) to remain on one’s own.
In 1995, the Clinton administration carved out an exception to the Fair Housing Act to allow for circumstances in which children could be excluded from buildings. The Housing for Older Persons Act permits housing in which at least 80 percent of people must be 55 and older.
As I consider the desirability of intergenerational housing, I think of a fair housing case I worked on over a dozen years ago against a large lakeside coop building in a northern suburb.
Its rules explicitly indicated that the community was “not suitable for children under 18 years of age” and indeed, a family with children tried to move in and was discouraged. All the residents in the building happened to be elderly. Through a legal settlement in which my group was joined by the Illinois Attorney General, the building was officially designated seniors-only.
But the residents later experienced a change of heart and became open to all. My own heart leapt reading on the building’s web site: “We love the sound of children in the pool or jumping waves on the weekend.”
H.O.M.E. has always bucked this seniors-only trend. Intergenerational housing has been our reason for being since our founding in 1982. Although our focus is the low-income senior, we believe that whether an older adult is wealthy, middle-income, or poor, each person’s need for community – a community that invites people of all ages through its doors – should be honored.