Officials: Senior Communities Should Govern Selves, Not Trenton

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  TRENTON – Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed the common interest community bill, S-2261, which some say would have led the way to removing age restrictions from senior communities.

  The language in the bill is fairly neutral, and does not mention age discrimination at all. However, it’s the direction it came from that has officials concerned.

  The bill passed both houses before it was struck down by an Absolute Veto on November 8. It’s called the “New Jersey Common Interest Ownership Act.” It was sponsored by Sen. Troy Singleton (D-7) and Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-7).

  The bill sets forth definitions and very basic regulations pertaining to common interest communities. It details, for example, how to create one. The term “common interest communities” is used because it doesn’t pertain to just senior developments.

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  According to a spokesman in Sen. Singleton’s office, “this bill would in no way have stopped age restricted communities from operating.”

  The need for this bill comes from stakeholders in the common interest industry, he said. It’s been pushed for many years but never became law.

  In vetoing the bill, the governor wrote “Rather than streamlining and simplifying New Jersey’s statutes in this area, enacting Senate Bill No. 2261(First Reprint) would add yet another incomplete source of law to the body of law applicable to common interest communities. Moreover, I am advised by the Chief of the Bureau of Homeowner Protection in the Department of Community Affairs that the current system, while imperfect, is at least familiar to practitioners who have come to rely on the various statutes in the decades they have been in place. Against that background, I am concerned that the bill would create confusion for community associations, their residents, developers, and their attorneys, who would be required to consult yet another set of rules and guidelines and determine whether new and old provisions conflict.”

  Local officials were worried about where it would go after the precedent started.

  “While the provisions of S-2261 are innocuous and would not have any far-reaching impact, our Delegation has justifiable reasons to see it as the first in a possible package of bills that could have far broader implications for the age-restricted communities,” said a message from Senator Christopher Connors, Assemblyman Brian Rumpf and Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove (all R-9th).

  S-2261 was introduced as a result of the New Jersey Law Review Commission’s Final Report Relating to Uniform Common Interest Ownership Act issued on October 21, 2016.

  “Our Delegation has the distinct privilege of representing thousands of residents living in age-restricted communities who adamantly oppose any legislative attempt to permit Trenton to interfere with the operations of their communities, including how their home owner associations (HOAs) conduct business,” they said. “For years we have consistently communicated, in no uncertain terms, to our colleagues in Trenton that the residents of age-restricted communities in our District do not want or need Trenton oversight.

  “These residents value their communities’ autonomy, including the ability to enforce age-restriction residency requirements and rightfully believe that Trenton has more important issues to focus on, such as reducing taxes and limiting the scope of government,” they said. “Again, while the provisions of S-2261 are innocuous, we applaud the fact that the bill was vetoed, as its enactment could likely have signaled the advancement of additional bills that residents of age-restricted communities we represent would have found far more objectionable.”

  Berkeley’s governing body passed a resolution against this bill, citing “a review of this bill raises concerns, as it can lead to State interference…when perceived gaps in bylaws arise.”

  The mayor and council said the bill could be far-reaching. They said leaders of homeowners associations are able to govern themselves because they know what their individual needs are better than a state one-size-fits-all mentality.

  “If we lose the integrity of 55 and over, it’s going to cause all kinds of problems in our community,” Mayor Carmen Amato said at a recent Township Council meeting.

  Former Berkeley Councilwoman Judith Noonan had fought versions of this bill for years and was pleased to hear that it was vetoed.

  “I thank all the people involved in the coalition (of senior communities). We couldn’t have done it without the seniors in Berkeley,” she said, adding that this is proof of what happens when people work together on a common goal.

  Berkeley has a lot of senior communities, as does Manchester and Toms River.

  Maurice “Mo” Hill said that people move to these 55 and over, or 65 and over communities for the peace and quiet. He said although technically it could be considered discrimination, “You can be any ethnicity or religion and move in, but you have to be the right age.”

  Opening senior communities to people of any age would be opening a can of worms, he said. You couldn’t bring that peace and quiet back.

  The reason that this bill’s language was so generic was to prevent the pushback that the last bill had, Singleton’s spokesman said. A few years ago, a similar bill with more power passed both houses before being vetoed. There were so many phone calls and letters against the 2019 version of the bill that this time they scaled it back to prevent the same kind of groundswell of resistance.

  “This was a way to start simpler,” he said.

  In 2019, there was a bill, S-2425, that was crafted to create a set of definitions so that all community housing would conform to an overall set of regulations. It wasn’t just about senior communities, but all communities. Connors had attended a packed house of hundreds of people at the Holiday City South clubhouse to talk about fighting it. Even back then, that bill was fairly harmless. It did not open senior communities to underaged people. He did feel, though, that it could pave the way for that in the future.

  One piece of language was in the 2019 bill about outlawing discrimination. Seniors feared that it would remove their ability to keep their age restrictions.

  The State Law Against Discrimination has been in effect since 1977, and was modified in 2003 to exclude senior communities.

  The federal Housing For Older Persons Act, signed into law in 1995, allows senior communities to be one of the few – if perhaps only – situations where people can choose who can live in a neighborhood. There are caveats, though. At least 80 percent of the homes must have one or more person of 55 years of age or older. The management must do everything they can to maintain this percentage.

  Seniors are worried that the state would allow people younger than 55 in their communities. If less than 80 percent of homes have a senior in them, then the community might lose its protected status.

  So, for example, if enough renters and house flippers start encroaching on the community, it will eventually be less than 80 percent seniors.

  The Housing For Older Persons Act is a federal law, and generally speaking, federal laws would be more powerful than state ones.

  At the town hall in 2019, Connors warned that attorneys could still challenge it and find legal ground to circumvent the federal law.

  Singleton’s office said in 2019 that the bill was harmless and that the concerns about removing the age requirement was false.

  He said that the legislation was based on recommendations from a New Jersey Law Review Commission report. He noted that an estimated one in seven residences in the state are in common interest communities and would be affected. On a broader scope, the bill cleans up a lot of the current laws governing these homes.

  “These proposed changes have been recommended for nearly twenty years,” Singleton said in 2019. “The first approved report from the NJ Law Review Commission recommending the NJ Common Interest Ownership Act was in 2000. It was considered by the Legislature and not enacted. Again in 2007 the Commission returned to the issue to address the most pressing problems and again, no legislative action. The most recent report from the Commission is from 2016” and served as the basis for the 2019 bill. 

  Ultimately, Singleton had the “discrimination” part of the 2019 bill removed. Regardless, that bill got vetoed as well.