People forced from their homes by Hurricane Sandy might be able to find new homes — in communities originally built for people ages 55 and older.

The federal government said this month that age-restricted developments could open up vacant units to hurricane refugees without losing their right to exclude other residents younger than 55. This is not mandatory, officials said.

John Trasviña, the federal assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, wrote in an open letter that the age-restricted communities that participate could continue to legally exclude families with children as permanent residents — as long as they don’t exclude temporary evacuees with children.

“I appreciate the interest (national housing providers have) shown during this and other devastating events to extend help to those in dire need of housing,” Trasviña wrote.

People who lived in New Jersey at the time of the storm, and are designated for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be eligible.

Age-restricted communities became popular following changes in federal law that permitted communities to exclude families with children, as long as 80 percent of the community remained 55 and older.

Municipal officials, who envisioned communities of taxpaying residents without expensive-to-educate children, saw the communities as a boon. But the recent housing crash revealed thousands of unsold, vacant units and years of supply. Changes in state law now permit some community developers to lift the restrictions, but few have taken that path.

Hurricane Sandy battered the Jersey Shore a month ago, costing tens of billions of dollars and leaving thousands homeless.

It is unclear which, if any, area age-restricted communities plan to open their doors to hurricane refugees. Several communities in Atlantic and Ocean counties contacted Tuesday said they were unaware of the proposal.

Residents in at least two communities, however, said they would welcome people who lost their homes in the storm.

“I don’t think you would find anyone here who would say no,” said Johnny Bruno, 64, who is on the board at The Village at Linwood. On Tuesday, he played cards with several residents in the community clubhouse.

Bruno said that about 10 to 15 of the more-than-180 condominium units are currently vacant, but no decision has been reached.

Residents of The Village at Linwood took up a collection shortly after the storm, said resident Dottie Grier, 89. They collected clothing and food, quilts and blankets, and supplies such as towels, toothpaste and other toiletries.

“If I were in Florida like I was last year, I would say, ‘You could certainly have it,’” Jane Laban, 85, who volunteers at a nearby thrift store, said of her unit. “I see so many people come to that thrift store, tears in their eyes because all they have is their clothes on their back.”

Others were more circumspect.

At the Village Grande at English Mill in Egg Harbor Township, Tom and Marlene Santucci, said they would not necessarily have a problem with the proposal, as long as there was a limit to how long evacuees could stay.

“I don’t have a personal objection,” said Marlene Santucci, 69, “but I don’t speak for the community, and I don’t speak for the board.”

Tom Santucci, 70, said that the issue was essentially moot, however, since 270 of the 273 homes in the development are already in private hands.

New Jersey officials said they support the move. “As housing for storm-displaced residents continues to be a concern,” state Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard E. Constable said in a statement, “we encourage managers and residents of 55 and older communities to welcome people of all ages displaced by the storm.”

Contact Derek Harper:

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