Qualifying for Senior Housing

A senior couple on a porch

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If you're a senior and looking to live in an apartment community with other seniors, you've probably been told that you should look for "senior housing." That may sound sensible, but you might be wondering exactly what that means and what age you must be to qualify.

Senior housing has a specific legal meaning, and it's helpful to understand what it's all about so you can start your apartment search with confidence.

What's Senior Housing?

Senior housing refers to housing that's exempt from the Fair Housing Act's (FHA) ban on familial status discrimination because it caters to people above a certain age and in a certain way (as codified by the FHA and the Housing for Older Persons Act (HOPA)):

  1. 62 and older. All occupants are 62 or older.
  2. 55 and older. At least one person who is 55 or older lives in at least 80% of the occupied units and the community adheres to a policy that demonstrates intent to house people who are 55 or older.
  3. Government program. HUD has determined that the dwelling is specifically designed for and occupied by older persons under a federal, state or local government program.

Normally, a landlord can't refuse to rent to tenants based on "familial status," or the fact that they have one or more children under 18 living in the household. But if an apartment community qualifies for the senior exemption, the landlord can legally discriminate against families with children.

Don't confuse senior housing with assisted living. An assisted living community can qualify as senior housing, but senior housing needn't offer special services designed to assist people with physical disabilities. (In 1995, HOPA eliminated the 55-and-older exemption's initial requirement that buildings offer "significant services and facilities specifically designed to meet the physical and social needs of older persons.")

(If you need any special services, make sure you look for apartments that offer them. Regardless of where you live, be aware that landlords are required to make reasonable accommodations and modifications that you request in connection with a disability.)

Who Qualifies for Senior Housing?

Because senior housing is about age, you generally must be at least a certain age to live in a senior housing community. But here are some important points you should keep in mind:

You Probably Don’t Need to Be As Old As You Think.

This is because:

  • The youngest exemption is for people who are 55 or older.
  • You can be younger than 55 to live a 55-and-older community, as long as a spouse or another person in your household is at least 55 years old.
  • If you're younger than 55, another possibility is to live in the 20% part that has no restriction (then possibly switch to belonging to the 80% when you or someone else in your household turns 55).

62-and-Older Housing Is Strict.

If you're considering "62 and older" buildings, then you and everyone else in your household must be at least 62 years old. (Note, however, that a live-in aide, attendant, nurse, or other healthcare provider doesn't need to meet this age requirement.)

Expect to Show Proof of Your Age.

When you apply for senior housing, you'll need to show proof of your age on a birth certificate, driver's license, passport, immigration card, military identification, or other accepted state, local, national or international documentation. If, for some reason, you can't produce a valid verification document, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has stated that a self-certification in a lease, application affidavit or ​another document signed by an adult member of your household asserting that at least one occupant in your apartment is at least 55 years old is acceptable. Expect age verification at least once every two years.

Landlords May Create Stricter Versions of These Exemptions.

Without violating any other law, a landlord is free to create stricter versions of these exemptions. For example, a landlord may require that at least 80% of apartments be occupied by at least one person who's 60 or older (instead of 55), that 100% of apartments (instead of 80%) are occupied by at least one person who's 55 or older, or that 80% of apartments be occupied exclusively by people who are 55 or older (instead of by at least one household member that age). If your state bans housing discrimination based on age, a landlord who adds these restrictions may run afoul of state law.

Landlords May Offer Different Terms and Conditions to Families With Children.

If a community meets the 55-and-older exemption, the landlord may still choose to rent to families with children, to fill vacancies during a tough market, for instance. Such landlords may, however, still legally discriminate against families when it comes to the terms and conditions of their rentals. For example, a landlord may deny families with children certain benefits of the apartment community (as long as the landlord doesn't violate other state or local laws). Note that landlords must still comply with the FHA's ban on discrimination based on the law's other protected classes, including race, color, religion, national origin, sex, and disability.