Senior living providers certainly offer more than shelter, but in the eyes of the law, they have to play by the same rules as other housing providers. The Fair Housing Act does not only place burdens on CCRCs and other provider types, though—it also can benefit operations and residents alike.
This was one major takeaway from the recent Caring Communities’ National Aging Services Risk Management Conference in Chicago. Experts at the event focused on keeping senior living residents safe while preserving their rights, and went into detail about how the Fair Housing Act can be used to both a provider’s and a resident’s advantage.
Senior housing providers are subject to the Fair Housing Act, according to Christina Wildrick, the director of risk management for the Peace Church Compliance Program at Friends Services for the Aging (FSA), an association of Quaker-affiliated organizations and programs for seniors.
FSA’s Risk Management Program, part of the Peace Church Compliance Program, serves nonprofit, faith-based senior care organizations using a collaborative approach to risk management.
Wildrick said there is still some confusion about the Fair Housing Act within the senior living industry.
“Providers in a CCRC setting may think [the Fair Housing Act] doesn’t apply to them,” Wildrick told Senior Housing News. “They think they’re so much more than a housing provider.”
The intersection of senior housing providers and the Fair Housing Act becomes of interest particularly in the CCRC setting. Sometimes, Wildrick explained to SHN, a CCRC resident will resist having to move from independent living to assisted living, even when provisions in the community’s contract stipulate that it is time for the resident to do so.
Beyond the Contract
The contract isn’t always the deciding factor in moving or evicting a resident, though, Wildrick explained. Because senior living providers are subject to the Fair Housing Act, providers are obligated to make a reasonable accommodation to help residents remain in independent living, or, in some cases, the community in general.
Specifically, under the Fair Housing Act, there are essential requirements of tenancy that every resident must meet in order to avoid eviction: keeping the unit in a safe, clean and sanitary condition; paying rent on time and in full; not disturbing the tranquility of others; not being a direct threat to the safety of others; and abiding by reasonable community rules, to name a few.
“The key is you can meet them with or without assistance,” Wildrick told SHN.
A resident can at any time ask for a reasonable accommodation, or an exception to a provider’s rules. This comes in handy for them when they want to stay in independent living, or in the CCRC at all, but are not following pre-established rules.
For instance, a CCRC may have a no-pet policy, but a blind resident may request a seeing eye dog as a reasonable accommodation to that rule. Another reasonable accommodation that Wildrick gave as an example involved hiring a cleaning service for a resident with an issue that prevents them from keeping their apartment sanitary, like hoarding.
Wildrick said Friends Services for the Aging encourages providers to establish reasonable community rules regarding behaviors that may not necessarily constitute a direct threat to other residents, like rules about smells and noise levels. These rules can work to preserve and enforce the CCRC’s culture in ways beyond the requirements of tenancy.
“It’s helpful for the providers to set those rules in the event that somebody’s behaviors may not impact one of those essential requirements of tenancy,” Wildrick explained.
Wildrick also stressed the importance of having rules and policies already in place when a problem arises, as opposed to creating policies after the fact. “I think a best practice would be to have policies in place, so that when a problem arises, you can point to a policy,” she said.
Beware the Overpromise
To limit liability down the line, continuing care retirement community (CCRC) operators should also define their “scope of service”—and be sure to advertise such scope in a clear, accurate manner.
Wildrick noted that, in many cases, there is a “definitive disconnect” between what a CCRC’s marketing team is advertising and what services the CCRC actually provides. This, though perhaps unintentional, can result in a set of unrealistic resident expectations.
“You might be surprised at what your marketing people think you’re doing, versus what you’re actually doing,” Wildrick told SHN.
For example, during a tour, a prospective resident may be told that a particular CCRC is “a full service community.” This may mean something accurate to the person giving the tour, but prospective residents can take this to mean something it’s not.
“You want to be clear about what it is that you will and will not be able to do for them,” Wildrick advised. “You don’t want to be caught in a situation where your marketing people have been over-promising.”
Written by Mary Kate Nelson