For the frustrated residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the Texas Christian University campus, the solution to the problem of too many “stealth dormitories” — structures with as many as five bedrooms and five baths usually rented to students — is simple:
Cover the TCU area with a zoning overlay district, where the number of unrelated adults who can live in a single-family home is reduced from five to three.
That is the proposal that went before the Fort Worth City Council at its Tuesday afternoon meeting.
And it’s one that has earned overwhelming support from the impacted neighborhoods, said Dana Burghdoff, deputy director for planning and development.
But it gets a little more complicated.
Currently, the city allows up to five unrelated adults to occupy a home in a district zoned single-family. And over the years, many investors and developers have taken advantage of the existing code, buying properties close to TCU and turning two-bedroom bungalows into four-and-five bedroom houses, ideal for student rentals.
Those “rent-a-room” houses have turned the blocks of quaint single-family homes into increasingly transient neighborhoods and packed streets with more vehicles than they were built to hold, raising legitimate concerns among local families and long-time residents.
But, as Mayor Betsy Price pointed out to the council on Tuesday, those “investment” properties were developed in compliance with the existing city ordinance. And if the council approves the overlay district, the earning potential of those properties will be limited, posing a burden on the current property owners.
“There is a fine balancing line there,” Price said.
Those investors, as well as several groups that represent their interests, hope the council will grandfather existing five-bedroom houses under the current code so they can continue renting to as many as five unrelated people.
But grandfathering is almost universally opposed by neighborhood associations. Even several council members have expressed their disfavor for such a measure, which could provide an advantage to established investor-owners.
There are multiple ways the city could grandfather the properties. Burghdoff offered several options for consideration.
Grandfathering could be limited to current leases only. Once leases expired, those properties would be subject to the overlay.
Another option is for the grandfathering to end upon a change in ownership.
Property owners could also be given a specific period of time — 15-25 years is the proposal on the table — before the overlay would go into effect on existing properties. That would give owners the necessary time to recoup their investment.
Or the grandfathering could be indefinite unless properties are unoccupied for one year, at which time they could become subject to the change in ordinance.
The issue of parking is separate but also crucial. Some neighborhood streets throughout the city, but specifically near TCU, have become overflow parking for students who rent rooms in the single-family houses near campus.
If the overlay is approved but grandfathering is allowed, it will do nothing to resolve the crowding of neighborhood streets in the 13 communities that would be subject to it.
So the city is also pursuing a broad and well-received effort to control parking at single-family homes by requiring an additional parking space per bedroom if the home has more than three bedrooms. The current code requires only two parking spaces, regardless of house size.
The parking ordinance, coupled with TCU’s commitment to build more on-campus parking and provide more on-campus housing, might clear up clogged roadways (if residents use their spaces in lieu of the street, of course).
Still, a parking solution alone won’t stop the “stealth dorm” problem.
And on that account, a compromise that involves some form of grandfathering appears necessary.
The wishes of residents and neighborhood families should be favored over students and landlords. Investors should be able to recoup their investments, but indefinite grandfathering would defeat the purpose of the zoning change.
The Zoning Commission is expected to hold a public hearing and vote on Oct. 8; the City Council is set to do the same on Nov. 4.