New housing caters to 55-and-older set

May 27, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

LAUREL -- Beyond the sloping driveway of Central Parke at Victoria Falls, homeowners paint portraits, soak in the sauna or walk in solitude, free from most cares of the world - including children.

Natalie Dann, 72, settled in the Prince George's County community with her husband two years ago to live near her adult daughters. The retired New Jersey teacher loves the location in the heart of the bustling Baltimore-Washington corridor. Taking a break from a book club meeting in Central Parke's community center, she said, "My goodness, there is everything you possibly want."

The resort-style enclave is among dozens of Maryland communities rising in areas where housing construction is usually restricted because of overcrowded schools or roads. Many would not be permitted except for a unique requirement: Only homeowners 55 and older are allowed.

The idea, legalized a dozen years ago when Congress carved out an exemption in anti-discrimination housing laws, is catching on fast. Maryland officials estimate that nearly a third of residential building permits issued in the past three years are for "age-restricted" housing, either large complexes such as Central Parke or individual homes tucked into the few undeveloped acres of crowded suburbs.

Local governments embrace these communities as a way of enriching the tax base without further crowding schools; some governments even offer incentives to builders who accept age restrictions. Advocates for seniors, meanwhile, say the communities allow grandparents to "age in place" and remain close to their extended families.

But critics say such developments are inherently discriminatory and encourage more density than surrounding communities might desire. Creating "graying ghettos," they warn, could have unforeseen cultural and economic repercussions, such as diminished diversity, overtaxed emergency medical services and less affordable housing for younger buyers.

Moreover, the swell of baby boomers - and the market for age-restricted housing - is projected to crest and recede in coming decades. When that happens, pressure could build to lift restrictions on some homes, triggering the school crowding that the practice was designed to avert.

"What is the purpose of these developments? Are they tailored for baby boomers who are marching toward retirement? Or are they being used by developers as a loophole in planning rules to turn a quick buck?" said Stephen Donnelly of Crofton, who does school planning for growth management for national developers.

The spike in age-restricted housing comes as Maryland prepares for a military expansion that will bring tens of thousands of new jobs over the next decade. Age restrictions, on top of an acknowledged lack of affordable housing, could make housing the relocated workers that much harder.

`Tax-positive' bunch

Controlling growth is a potent political issue in Baltimore's suburbs, as residents seek to keep schools and roads from becoming overwhelmed. Many counties have laws that prohibit homes from being built in areas where roads, police and fire services and schools are inadequate.

But developers have successfully argued that age-restricted housing brings in tax money without adding students to the schools, the most expensive public service for local governments to provide. They might add cars to the roads, but these older homeowners typically aren't driving at rush hour, so the impact is muted.

"These people are ready to retire, and they are extremely tax-positive," said John C. Stamato, president of Ribera Development LLC, which is planning a 55-and-over community of 2,000 homes and a golf course south of Odenton. "That's exactly the kind of people you don't want to lose to other jurisdictions."

A state task force last year agreed, concluding that there is a "net benefit to keeping households in the state when compared to local expenditures."

For every elderly couple that leaves Maryland, the state loses on a yearly basis more than $70,000 in new income per household, more than $5,000 in state and local tax revenue, the task force estimated.

The task force also predicted that the state will face a "tidal wave" of growth of its elderly population, which will make up 29 percent of the state's population by 2020, then level off and begin to decline.

At one time, age-restricted conclaves would have been illegal under the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination. But the act was amended to allow developers to create communities for those 62 and older, as long as they include facilities for community dining and health care.

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