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Adults-only park stands firm against soldier's kids

Some called it harsh when Thomas Boyette's adults-only mobile home park threatened to evict him for letting two grandchildren stay with him while their father serves in Iraq.

Harsh, maybe. But legal.

While it remains illegal to bar people from moving into a neighborhood because of race or religion, it is legal to restrict housing by age of the residents.

The 171-unit Riviera Estates mobile home park is one of more than 200 age-restricted communities in Pinellas County that require residents to be 55 or older.

Many of those neighborhoods trace their origins to the 1960s and '70s, when retirees and empty-nesters flooded the Florida housing market, said Joe Adams, a Fort Myers lawyer who represents dozens of age-restricted communities.

Developers in suddenly growing Sun Belt states such as Arizona and Florida responded to the demand by constructing small communities that offered shuffleboard and bridge - and that restricted children from becoming residents.

But when Congress adopted the Fair Housing Amendment of 1989, it added families with children and people with disabilities to the list of groups protected under the original civil rights law passed in 1968.

The 1989 amendment essentially had made the "adults-only" communities illegal. So, Congress made an exception to that law, and a special class of "over 55" housing was created.

"It recognized that a number of people had made housing choices on the assumption that they had raised their children and had made a conscious decision to chose a lifestyle without (other people's) children," Adams said.

The exception requires that age-restricted communities take certain steps, including filing information with the state verifying that at least 80 percent of their residents are 55 or older.

"The Fair Housing Act felt that any community that wanted to exclude families with children would have to meet a high threshold," said Bryan Greene. He is a deputy assistant secretary in the federal Housing and Urban Development Department's Office of Fair Housing.

In the case of Riviera Estates, if kids were to move into the park, older residents could move out. That could cause the mobile home park to lose its over-55 designation, said Sharon Stewart, regional manager for Arc Investments, a California company that oversees the park.

Park guidelines allow guests to stay at the park a maximum of 30 days.

"We've already given them an extension," Stewart said of Boyette and his family. "It's really simple: The rules of the park have to be followed."

But Boyette, 53, and his daughter-in-law and his grandchildren, ages 3 and 12, have no plans to leave.

Boyette's son, Sean, was called up to serve in Iraq in September.

Months before the Army National Guardsman was activated, he and wife, Trish, put their Citrus Park home up for sale. They found a buyer the same month Sean Boyette was deployed.

The only problem: Their new home wouldn't be ready until March.

So Thomas Boyette asked the Riviera Estates' on-site manager if the family could stay with him. The manager agreed, Boyette said. In January, Trish Boyette and her children moved into the three-bedroom mobile home that Thomas Boyette rents and shares with his wife, Deborah.

About a month after the family moved in, management said it received complaints from neighbors about the children.

On Feb. 17, Boyette received a letter from the park stating that he had seven working days to comply with the community's rules, which means removing the younger family members, or face eviction.

"They're not going to leave, that's a fact," Boyette said. "We'll just be evicted I guess, but we'll fight it. We're not going anyplace."

Eviction proceedings will begin on Tuesday if Boyette does not comply with the park's rules. "We haven't changed our minds about anything," Stewart said. "The rules of the park are the rules."

Meanwhile, the "We support our troops" flag that had waved at the entrance of the park is gone. It's a mystery who removed it.

Nicole Johnson can be reached at njohnson@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

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