An effort to add language to the Fort Worth’s zoning ordinance that narrowly defines a “single housekeeping unit” has some property owners concerned the city is going too far in restricting housing rentals.
The definition is among six proposed changes to the city’s ordinance that have already been approved by the Zoning Commission. The City Council in early August was scheduled to vote on the changes, but sent the case back to the nine-member commission to take another look after receiving numerous comments from property owners.
Property owners say the definition restricts an owner’s right to lease a house — and it applies to any house in the city.
The city’s ordinance broadly uses the term single housekeeping unit. In order for city staff to better interpret the ordinance, the city’s legal staff sought to define the term, adding such language that says a “bona fide single housekeeping unit” doesn’t exist if at least one tenant is registered to vote elsewhere.
What they are proposing is the strictest definition in the entire country. This affects any landlord with more than two unrelated people living under one roof. Fort Worth is a vibrant city with a strong business mentality. Everything about this proposed definition is against what has made us great.
Chris Powers, Fort Worth property owner/investor
The city says it’s not targeting college students, but the move to add the definitions comes just months after a contentious process created the TCU Residential Overlay ordinance that curbs the so-called stealth dormitories, or large houses rented to college students.
The lack of a definition in the ordinance was a concern to the mediation group handling the TCU case, but they ran out of time to even consider what a definition could be.
“We are concerned,” said Robert Gleason, governmental affairs director for the Greater Fort Worth Association of Realtors. “Trying to define a single housekeeping unit is very troubling for property rights. It’s a very complicated issue.”
Currently, Fort Worth allows five unrelated individuals to rent a house, excluding the TCU overlay in several far-reaching neighborhoods around Texas Christian University. That overlay was adopted late last year, and although it grandfathered existing rental properties, it restricts new rentals to only three unrelated individuals.
Mayor Betsy Price at a meeting earlier this month said the proposed changes “fell through the cracks at Zoning Commission and took us all by surprise. It snuck up and got ahead of everybody.”
In addition, Price said the city is not “back-peddling” on the TCU overlay and “intends to stand by the solution.”
Currently, Fort Worth allows five unrelated individuals to rent a house, except in the TCU overlay area where new rentals are restricted to only three unrelated individuals.
Chris Powers, with Fort Worth investment firm Fort Capital and a commercial and residential real estate developer/investor with properties around the city, calls the city’s attempt to define single housekeeping unit “radical.”
“What they are proposing is the strictest definition in the entire country,” Powers said. “This affects any landlord with more than two unrelated people living under one roof. Fort Worth is a vibrant city with a strong business mentality. Everything about this proposed definition is against what has made us great.”
Sarah Fullenwider, the city’s attorney, scoffed at the notion that the definition is too restrictive, saying rather that the proposed definition “is not an end all,” and is being done to give staff guidance when it needs to interpret the ordinance. And, it is not being done to muddle the TCU issue, she said.
“We’ve had people tell us they think it’s too restrictive and we’ve had other people say keep it, we like it,” Fullenwider said. “We’ll have to see what the Zoning Commission does.”
In March, the city’s legal staff and the Planning and Development Department presented an informal report to the City Council outlining the proposed text amendments to the zoning ordinance. Four definitions covering restaurant, community home, family and boarding house are also being revised. Definitions for single housekeeping unit, and transient or short-term resident, are new.
A definition for single housekeeping unit was being added “to clarify that individuals in a residential dwelling unit must have established ties and familiarity with each other, share a lease agreement or own the property, jointly use common areas, interact with each other, and share household expenses,” the report said.
We’ve had people tell us they think it’s too restrictive and we’ve had other people say keep it, we like it. We’ll have to see what the Zoning Commission does.
City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider
But between the time the council saw the report and July 8 when the Zoning Commission approved the changes without discussion or any public comment, the definition was broadened and four presumptions were added.
Even if one of the presumptions exists, the zoning change would allow city staff to say a house doesn’t quality to be a single housekeeping unit. Fullenwider says the presumptions are “rebuttable,” and can contested or disproved.
The presumptions state that if one or more of the members of the household has a different address for the purpose of voter registration, driver’s license, motor vehicle registration or filing of taxes — typical for houses leased to college students — or a keyed or deadbolt lock was on at least one interior door, it can be considered as not being “a bona fide” single housekeeping unit.
Gleason said he’d venture to guess that almost every house in Fort Worth has at least one interior lock.
Jeremy Chalker, president and CEO of consultancy Affiliated Dealer Services, who owns eight rental properties in Fort Worth, calls the proposed changes “crazy.”
As a landlord, Chalker said, he wouldn’t have the right to ask tenants to change their voter registration to Tarrant County, or “ask them to do anything,” under the proposed changes.
“I could say a hundred thousand things I don’t like about it,” Chalker said. “It would be a tremendous loss in income and it wasn’t done in good faith. They’re trying to find any loophole they can.”
Public input needed
The City Council was scheduled to approve the Zoning Commission’s actions Aug. 4, but instead kicked the case back to the Zoning Commission at the city staff’s request — and hoping for a more public process. The staff admits it did not send notices to potentially interested parties that would have given them a chance to respond to the proposed changes.
Dana Burghdoff, the city’s assistant planning director and zoning administrator, said that when the issue was placed on the Zoning Commission agenda for its July meeting, she “completely dropped the ball with regard to telling anybody it was coming forward. It was a huge oversight and professionally embarrassing.”
Moreover, Melinda Ramos, an assistant city attorney, said she doesn’t recall whether the council saw full definition and the presumptions before it went to the Zoning Commission.
“These proposed definitions raise significant policy questions for the City Council to decide and, consequently, we would like to communicate more effectively with all interested parties about those issues before they reach the City Council for a decision,” Assistant City Manager Fernando Costasaid in a July 15 email to the the mayor, council and staff.
Dozens of concerned property owners attended a public meeting on the issue Aug. 12. The Zoning Commission will hear the case Sept. 9 and decide whether to add the definition, or all or any of the presumptions. It is scheduled to go back to the council Oct. 13.