Lawsuits accuse West Boca mobile home community of illegal age restrictions

By Tal Abbady 
Article Courtesy Sun Sentinel
Published August 3, 2003

West Boca · Sherry McBride thought her search for a place to live would end in this cloistered neighborhood where trees drape over small homes and neighbors walk the tidy streets.

With good schools nearby, the Sandalfoot Cove Section 1 mobile home park east of U.S. 441 looked like a fine place to raise her son, Tyler, 9.

But McBride never moved in. Instead she sued the community in federal court, claiming she was told children weren't welcome and advised to look elsewhere for a home.

Sandalfoot Cove isn't registered with the state as a 55 or older community. Its bylaws make no mention of age restriction. That means McBride may be part of a growing class of frustrated homebuyers in Florida -- those who, for having children, are rejected by communities that aren't legally age-restricted.

The nonprofit Fair Housing Center of the Greater Palm Beaches investigated McBride's complaint in April 2001 and claimed in a subsequent lawsuit that the mobile home park and Realtor Jane Sendzik of the Keyes Co. violated federal housing laws. McBride is seeking $250,000 in damages, said Fair Housing Center attorney Michael Amezaga. The case could go to trial this fall.

Sendzik declined to comment and her attorney could not be reached, despite several attempts by phone. In court records, she denies the allegations.

The Keyes Co., which used Sendzik as an independent contractor, stated in court documents that it was unaware of Sendzik's alleged violations of fair housing laws. Brokers are bound to comply with those laws as part of the company's code of ethics, the company said.

Checks and balances

"We're working through our best efforts to conclude this situation. We're very civic-minded," said Keyes president Michael Pappas. He was dismissed as a defendant in May.

He said the company sells or rents 12,000 properties yearly and educates its 1,200 agents about housing discrimination laws.

Roughly 75 percent of the Fair Housing Center's dozens of ongoing lawsuits involve discrimination based on whether someone has children, its lawyers said. The group works with the federal government to monitor housing discrimination.

Sandalfoot Cove's lawyer refused comment, but the community's attempt in April to have the case dismissed failed. Sandalfoot Cove claimed to have no knowledge of Sendzik's practices and that she had no authority to act on its behalf, court records show. As part of its investigation, the Fair Housing Center sent four "testers" posing as homebuyers to Sendzik. She made repeated claims about the community's child-free preference, even going so far as to caution one woman about becoming pregnant while living in the community, according to the lawsuit.

"This is an adult community," Sendzik told one tester, court records show.

To another tester she said: " `I am going to tell you up from, the Homeowners Association won't approve you. ... A lot of us bought here with the pretense that this is an adult community,'" the lawsuit claims.

"There was no subtlety about it," McBride, 39, said of her exchange with Sendzik, who lives at the mobile home park and was referred to McBride as the Sandalfoot Cove realty expert.

"When she heard me say I had a child, it was, `Oh, no, no.' She was not going to approve me because of my son," said McBride, an unemployed single mother.

McBride said the March 2001 conversation ended abruptly after Sendzik told her children were unwelcome and that she would influence the community's board to reject her application.

Fair housing experts say self-designated age-restricted communities have existed in Florida for decades. In 1988, the federal government made it illegal to discriminate against homebuyers or renters with children under 18. But communities can qualify as age-restricted and be exempt if at least 80 percent of residents are 55 or older. Services for the elderly, such as transportation, meals and other assistance, must also be provided.

Widespread ignorance of federal law among those running homeowner and condominium associations and the state's lack of enforcement have allowed doors to be shut on parents of young children, according to one fair housing official.

"Many of these are working-class families who are trying to make ends meet. They're thrown on the street. It's discrimination against kids," said Vince Larkins, head of the Fair Housing Center. "If they're not a 55 or older community, they can't keep children out. "

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 603 federal housing discrimination suits were filed in the past year. Of those, 87 claimed discrimination based on familial status, up from 56 filed in 1999, the year after the federal government banned housing discrimination against parents with children under 18 in communities that aren't age-restricted.

Advocates say the state has done a poor job of tracking which communities are legitimately age-restricted and punishing violators.

Of the roughly 20,000 Florida communities that have age restrictions in their bylaws and advertising, only 2,600 are registered, according to the Florida Commission on Human Relations. About 500 of those are in Palm Beach County.

Compounding the problem, Larkins said, is that communities pitched as "adult only" by developers and boards often have some of the most affordable housing in the state.

Resident empathy

For McBride, who was laid off a year ago from her job as a courier, the mobile homes at Sandalfoot Cove were the last frontier in her search for an affordable home. The homes' market value run roughly from $40,000 to $80,000 -- far below the average price of $219,000 for a home in Palm Beach County -- according to county property records.

"This was pretty much bottom-line where I could go," said McBride, who grew up in Boca Raton.

Some residents of Sandalfoot Cove were not surprised at the legal grumbling about children.

"If kids moved in here, a lot of older people would move out," said Kay Hietzmann, 68, an eight-year resident. "There are people in here that would discourage it. They don't want kids around," she said as her grandchild, Madison, 6, a frequent visitor, played in her screened porch.

Theresa Williams, a 69-year-old grandmother, moved to Sandalfoot Cove several years ago from an age-restricted community. Originally from Massachusetts, she said her own father struggled with landlords who disapproved of their family with five children.

Willliams herself has three children, three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

"Why should I mind? I had kids. It's an awful feeling when somebody doesn't like your children," she said. "I still say the elderly should have the right to have their own place, but maybe this isn't it."

McBride said the Fair Housing Center's investigation was some vindication. But that's little consolation for putting her search for a home on hold while the legal case continues. She says she would still pursue living in Sandalfoot Cove. For now, she and Tyler will continue to live with her mother in Boca Raton.

"I want a simple little house that would be mine where I can raise my son. I want some quiet in my life. I do have a roof over my head, but it should be my own," she said.