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As Airbnbs spread, some wonder if Fort Worth is doing enough to control ‘party houses’

On the weekends they come, strangers from out of town looking for a cheap room and the comfort of home.

For the most part they’re quiet vacationers, but increasingly short-term renters in Fort Worth’s neighborhoods are bringing headaches for longtime residents despite city zoning laws that ban Airbnbs and similar operations.

In Arlington Heights at least three homes in the area of the 3700 block of Harley Avenue are rented out on the weekends, said neighborhood resident Robin Garrison. The homes attract partiers, and recently a group parked a large tour bus on the residential street, he said.

With Dickies Arena set to open in November, Garrison said he and others in Arlington Heights are worried more short-term rentals will come to the eastern part of the neighborhood.

“I want this to remain a neighborhood, but I’m afraid it will be a hotel district,” Garrison said.

Airbnb hosts, meanwhile, say a few bad apples are ruining an otherwise responsible industry in the city.

“We’re maintaining our homes, being a face for Fort Worth,” said Lauren Brady, who operated two Airbnbs in Arlington Heights. “At the same time we provide affordable travel options.”

In Fort Worth, Airbnbs, VBROs or similar short-term rentals are not allowed in residential areas. Instead they’re limited to commercial and industrial areas that already have a blend of housing and business. Unlike hotels, short-term rentals don’t pay the city’s hotel tax.

Councilman Dennis Shingleton urged fellow council members last Tuesday to take up the issue for discussion. His office, he said, had fielded “too many” calls about Airbnbs and other short-term rentals. It was time the city decided to either take its ordinance seriously or deffer to Austin for statewide legislation, he told the Star- Telegram.

Rep. Angie Chen Button of Richardson sponsored a bill in the House that would have regulated short-term rentals across the state, but in April it was left pending in the House Urban Affairs Committee.

Property owners want a way to subsidize their mortgage and taxes or cash in on the city’s growing tourism market. But neighborhoods are worried about traffic, noise, parking and crime, Shingleton said.

“We need some guidelines,” he said. “You have a couple come to town for a couple days and you lend them your house, that’s one thing, but when your place is for a party, we get all sorts of problems.”

But it is hard to know how well the city is enforcing the policy it has had since at least 2004.

Owners of short-term rental properties aren’t required to register with the city and citations for illegal rentals are lumped in with other zoning violations. That makes it difficult to know how many Airbnbs or similar operations exist in Fort Worth.

A search of Airbnb’s website for the weekend of June 14 populated dozens of rentals around the city. Because the site doesn’t give exact addresses, it’s hard to tell how many were legal and how many broke the city’s ordinance. The Arlington Heights neighborhood showed several in primarily residential areas.

Brady said she didn’t know Airbnbs were not allowed in residential areas until she received a notice from Fort Worth’s code compliance office a few weeks ago. She has canceled her pending reservations (most are corporate travelers) and will switch to 30-day or longer bookings, she said.

The city needs to strike a balance between responsible hosts and neighborhoods rightfully concerned, she said. She began renting a converted garage at the home where her mother-in-law lives to supplement the property tax. The rental was so successful she bought another house, where she said she’s invested most of the money in remodeling.

“It kills me that I put so much love and energy into my houses and try to add value, and then there are hosts who put three bunk beds in a room and say their place sleeps 20,” she said. “Of course neighbors are going to be upset by that.”

She suggested the city register short-term rental owners, charge a fee and guest tax. That money could be used to fund additional compliance officers to keep unruly rentals in line.

Brady was a part of a $64 million economy in Dallas-Fort Worth last year, according to Airbnb. The company estimated about 466,000 guests stayed in DFW Airbnbs last year.

”We want to do everything we can to help our community members be good neighbors in the places they too call home,” Airbnb spokesman Ben Breit said in an email. “Hosting is a big responsibility and those who fail to meet our standards and expectations will be subject to suspension or removal.”

The company encourages hosts to inform neighbors of their intent to rent to travelers and be mindful of noise and other issues. The company also provides a link for neighbors to issue complaints. The company runs background checks on U.S. citizens for felony convictions, sex offender registrations and significant misdemeanors, Breit said.

Many short-term rentals in Fort Worth are around downtown or on the edge of neighborhoods in the proper zoning areas, but an increasing number are residential neighborhoods, Shintleton said.

In Crestwood, a short-term rental in a large home created several problems, neighbor Bill Shurr said, but the neighborhood had few options. Finding the owner was difficult and calls to police or code compliance often didn’t result in a remedy.

“Code Compliance personnel are not easily found on weekends. So guess what? Neighbors are out of luck,” Shurr wrote in an email. “By the time offensive conduct and disturbances end, the guests have left without Code Compliance officers ever having observed anything.“

Other North Texas cities have grappled with short-term rentals recently.

In September, the Grapevine City Council upheld a existing city ordinance banning short-term rentals, but in November a judge ordered the city to stop enforcing the ban pending a lawsuit.

In April, Arlington decided to regulate Airbnb-style operators by limiting them to within one mile of the city’s entertainment district, which includes Six Flags Over Texas, Globe Life Park and AT&T Stadium.

Brad Herbert, a short-term rental operator and a member of Short-Term Accommodations for Residents and Tourism, made a last-minute proposal to allow neighborhoods to opt out of having short-term rentals rather than the council impose citywide rules. He warned the City Council that the city could face legal action from short-term rental owners.

The organization had lobbied for more limited regulations on short-term rentals, citing an Arlington study that showed less than a third of one percent of that city’s housing units were short-term rentals and only 16 had more than 10 nuisance calls.

Herbert said the issue was about property rights, not zoning. Cities are OK with rentals longer than 30 days, even though they may also cause nuisances, Herbert said, so hosts are wondering why limiting short-term rentals makes sense. For hosts with a fixed income, medical bills or needing supplemental income, the short-term rental is vital, he said.

“They’re utilizing their home to make ends meet,” he said. “Cities are saying homeowners can no longer invite people into their home. That’s putting a huge hurt on them.”

Back in Arlington Heights, Garrison is worried about his own home. He rents his house and fears the property management company may sell to a short-term rental investor.

“There’s a gold mine over here with Dickies opening and I may be out the door,” he said.

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or
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