The Federal Government’s Role in Promoting Neighborhood Play

Last week, First Lady Laura Bush announced the formation of the “National Center for Physical Development and Outdoor Play”. It will be part of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.

The press release notes, “With a $12 million, four-year grant, the Center will help Head Start programs across the country evaluate their playgrounds and their outdoor play spaces, and educate children and families about the importance of healthy food and physical activity.”

I’m thrilled that the federal government is paying attention to the problem of the lack of kids’ play, but do we really need to create more government bureaucracy and spend all that money?
I don’t think so. Actually, for you politicians out there, I have a money-saving proposal that will do far more good than this new agency for the cause of getting kids out to play: amend the Fair Housing Act to make it easier for families with children to live near one another.

As I noted in articles on the Playborhood Survey, parents are very dissatisfied with their children’s amount of neighborhood play , and they are willing to pay lots of extra money for a house in a neighborhood with lots of play opportunities for their kids.

The Fair Housing Act states that no one may be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap. This prohibits not only discrimination in selling, but also discrimination in marketing or advertising. Thus, it is illegal to advertise that a house is a good house for a particular group (e.g. families with children).

Regarding the “familial status” part of this law, there is specific language in the law that discusses only protecting families with children. In other words, there is nothing mentioned in the law about protecting childless households from finding housing.

Nonetheless, real estate brokers and lawyers treat the protection of all familial statuses equally. I would argue that this was not the original intent of the law.

In any case, in 1995, Congress and the President acknowledged that this law was too restrictive and created an exemption for “Housing for Older Persons.” This enabled elderly people to find housing in places which are all or most residents are elderly.

My policy recommendation is that families with children be given the same sort of exception as this “Housing for Older Persons” exception. As we have begun to chronicle on Playborhood, there is a broad movement in the United States among parents to find more play opportunities for their children in their neighborhoods. The Playborhood Survey certainly corroborates this.

To a much greater extent than decades ago, many factors limit or eliminate children’s neighborhood play – screen-based activities (computers, videogames, and television), structured activities administered by adults (organized sports, lessons, etc.), parents’ fear of automobiles and sexual predators, etc. Thus, I strongly believe that the federal government has a role to play in lifting the Fair Housing Act’s restriction against allowing real estate brokers to target certain houses for families with children.

Some may fear that, if my proposal is adopted, buyers without children will have far fewer housing opportunities. However, non-elderly homebuyers did not have any such trouble after the “Housing for Older Persons” exception was introduced in 1995. Realtors or sellers are highly unlikely to sell at a home at a lower price to a family with kids than they could receive from someone else.

Instead, it will merely allow the free market for housing to work more efficiently, so that families with children can “cluster” in certain blocks and neighborhoods. Just like we have senior communities, we can have “family communities” where dozens of children can find playmates for games of tag and pickup basketball and the like. They’ll have more places (e.g. playgrounds and play structures) and more facilities (e.g. trampolines) to play with. And, there can be grandparents, too – these communities can include non-child households, particularly when those households have a connection to children there.

In future articles I’ll be writing about my efforts in advocating this. One person who will hear from me is a certain Presidential candidate who believes it “takes a village” to raise a child. I’ll be speaking to another from the same state, but on the other side, this Monday. Stay tuned…

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