Fort Worth committee haggles over TCU-area landlord registration

By Scott Nishimura

If not grandfathering, rental registration.

With the Fort Worth Zoning Commission’s approval Wednesday of a TCU-area overlay meant to stop the growth of so-called “stealth dorms” in the single-family neighborhoods, the debate moved next to a landlord registration that will accompany the overlay when the City Council votes on it Dec. 2.

Members of the city-appointed mediation committee that last week reached the agreement on the overlay that the Zoning Commission subsequently voted on wrangled for two and a half hours Wednesday night on how the landlord registration would be structured.

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The committee, including investors and representatives of neighborhood groups, voted 12-1-1 in favor of a motion that said they agreed in” principle on rental registration with provisions that protect the privacy of tenants.” That becomes the foundation of a city staff-revised draft of a rental registration ordinance that the committee will meet again, 6 p.m. Nov. 19 at the University Christian Church, to discuss.

“This is just the start,” Fernando Costa, the Fort Worth assistant city manager who has chaired the committee’s four meetings, told the group.

The motion was about as much as the group could agree on. Landlords would register online, but the committee members couldn’t agree on whether it should be one-time, or annual. They disagreed on what information would be protected from public view, and it wasn’t clear what information the city staff would need in order to effectively enforce the overlay, which reduces the number of permissible unrelated adults living in single family homes around TCU to three from five.

Some of the investors said they were even unclear on the purpose of the rental registration, whose establishment the committee last week tied to the City Council’s consideration of the overlay. The overlay grandfathers existing properties in perpetuity, so long as property owners don’t discontinue the use for more than two consecutive years, and the city staff would use the registry to enforce it.

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“It’s critical to making grandfathering effective,” Costa said.

The investors showed little interest in a proposal from several neighborhood associations represented on the committee to tie continued registration to the behavior of tenants, a key thread in neighborhoods’ arguments for the overlay. A property owner’s registration for a grandfathered use could be suspended or revoked for criminal activity of tenants, under the proposal presented by Mike Coffey of the University West Neighborhood Association.

“Is there a number of criminal offenses at which you would be willing to say you will evict a tenant?” Coffey pressed in a line of questioning with the investors on the mediation committee.

Chris Powers, one of the investors, responded the group would be interested, but only if TCU was drawn into the discussion and willing to help regulate the behavior of its students. Investors so far have argued that tenant behavior isn’t a matter for the city’s zoning ordinances.

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The conversation ranged far enough that the committee almost voted on a motion from one investor to establish a registry only for landlords that wanted to establish a legal, non-conforming use – not all landlords of single-family properties, as was the condition of the committee’s approval last week of the overlay.

The motion was withdrawn after several of the neighborhood leaders pointed out the inconsistency.

“If we take rental registration off the table, we don’t have an agreement on the overlay,” Coffey said.