Article in the NYTs that discusses the phenomenon investigated in Leisureville -- special enforcement details designed to hunt down families and kick them out of age-segregated communities.
August 28, 2010
Retirement Haven Hunts Youthful Violators
By MARC LACEY
SUN CITY, Ariz. — From behind the wheel of his minivan, Bill Szentmiklosi scours the streets of Sun City in search of zoning violations like unkempt yards and illegal storage sheds. Mostly, though, he is on the lookout for that most egregious of all infractions: children.
With a clipboard of alleged violations to investigate, he peers over fences and ambles into backyards of one of America’s pioneer retirement communities, a haven set aside exclusively for adults, where children are allowed to visit but not live.
Mr. Szentmiklosi, 60, a retired police officer who settled here four years ago, has remade himself as the chief of Sun City’s age police, the unit charged with ensuring that this age-restricted community of sexagenarians, septuagenarians and even older people does not become a refuge for the pacifier-sucking, ball-playing or pimple-faced.
One recent morning, as he slowly wheeled between ranch homes and palm trees, Mr. Szentmiklosi kept a sharp eye on the driveways and yards, surveying for any obvious signs of youth. It could be a stray ball, a misplaced pint-size flip-flop. In sniffing out children, he said, he relies on his three decades as an officer.
But it is when he strides up to a home, dressed in shorts, sandals and a polo shirt, and knocks on the door that his detective work really begins. He tells the suspected violator that a neighbor has complained and he asks gentle questions to get to the bottom of things, all the while peering around for signs of youthful activity. His work is helped by a simple reality: children are hard to hide.
They leave tracks and make unique sounds. Newborns bellow, toddlers shriek and teenagers play music that is not typical around Sun City.
Mr. Szentmiklosi and his fellow child-hunters have their work cut out for them. The number of age violations in Sun City, a town of more than 40,000 residents outside Phoenix, has been rising markedly over the years, from 33 in 2007 to 121 in 2008 to 331 last year, a reflection of a trend at many of the hundreds of age-restricted communities nationwide.
This year’s figures are expected to be even higher, said Mr. Szentmiklosi, who knows that despite his patrols Sun City is probably harboring more children that have not yet been detected. The economic crisis is aggravating the problem, he said, forcing families to take desperate measures to cut costs, even if it means surreptitiously moving into Grandma and Grandpa’s retirement bungalow.
The vigorous search for violators of Sun City’s age rules is about more than keeping loud, boisterous, graffiti-scrawling rug rats from spoiling residents’ golden years, although that is part of it. If Sun City does not police its population, it could lose its special status and be forced to open the floodgates to those years away from their first gray hair.
The end result would be the introduction of schools to Sun City, then higher taxes and, finally, an end to the Sun City that has drawn retirees here for the last half-century.
At 50, Sun City is not old by the standards of Sun City, where the average resident is in his or her early 70s.
To remain a restricted retirement community, at least 80 percent of Sun City’s housing units must have at least one occupant who is 55 or older, allowing for younger spouses or adult children. But the rules are clear on one thing: no one, absolutely no one, who is a teenager, an adolescent, a toddler, a newborn, any form of child, may call Sun City home.
“Visits are O.K. as long as they’re limited,” said Mr. Szentmiklosi, who describes himself as a doting grandfather and insists that he does not have an anti-child bone in his body. “You can have children visit for 90 days per year. That means if you have 10 grandchildren, each one can visit, but they can only stay nine days each.”
Mr. Szentmiklosi, the compliance manager for the Sun City Homeowners Association, said that although the city was scrupulous, it remained compassionate. For instance, it allowed a young woman with an infant who was renting a home without the association’s knowledge a year to move out.
But the association also plays hardball, issuing fines and threatening legal action to pressure youthful violators to leave. One reason Sun City is so vigorous is because of what happened on the other side of 111th Avenue, one of the main roads traversing the neighborhood.
Although Del Webb, who developed Sun City in 1960, gets credit for inventing the idea of a community of active retirees, the concept actually started years before on an adjacent tract in what was called Youngtown. But the developers there were not diligent in drawing up their legal paperwork. A challenge by the family of a teenage boy led the state to strip Youngtown of its age restrictions in 1998.
So on one side of the road, little people can be seen running around. On the other side, many people remember the Great Depression, and not from reading about it in a book.
“It was so much quieter before,” said Librado Martinez, 80, a retired machine operator who lives on the Youngtown side of the line and has to put up with children playing ball in the park in front of his house. “You heard no screams before.”
That peace is what Sun City residents want to keep. They rose up last month to block a charter school, which is not governed by the same rules as other public schools, from moving in.
“They were concerned about children roaming the streets and terrorizing things,” said Marsha Mandurraga, who works for the school’s founder.
To prevent future incursions, Sun City’s leaders are using their clout to urge state legislators to change the law to keep Sun City school-free.
“I’ve raised kids,” said Chris Merlav, 61, breathing through an oxygen tank and resting on the side of a Sun City pool designed for walking, not swimming. “After a while you get to the point where you don’t want to be bothered anymore.”
Mr. Merlav, who moved here from Rochester, had evidence at hand that he was not anti-child. His 20-year-old stepdaughter, Danielle Anastasia, was lounging in the pool with him. She understood the desire of Sun City residents to be with people their own age. “It’s like me hanging with my college friends,” she said.
Some of Sun City’s more hard-line anti-child activists can sound as though they somehow bypassed youth completely.
“There are people here who have never had children, don’t care for children and don’t particularly want children around,” said Jan Ek, who runs Sun City’s seven recreation centers, eight golf courses, two bowling centers and assorted other entertainment venues, some of which sometimes open up for child visitors.
At Sun City’s museum, the resident historian, Bill Pearson, 62, played a videotape used to lure retirees to the development in the 1960s.
The narrator said then what many residents still say now: “Of course we love them and enjoy their visits, but you deserve a little rest after raising your own.”