This story was written by Caty Hirst and appeared in the Star-Telegram on June 20, 2014.
FORT WORTH — Tim Latta’s once quiet, family-oriented Frisco Heights neighborhood of circa 1920s to 1950s homes is all but disappearing, being swallowed up one home at a time to make room for parking lots and housing developments geared toward Texas Christian University students.
Latta, who lives in a Mad Men-reminiscent, 1950’s home — complete with a series of floor-to-ceiling windows and low-pitched roofs — is watching the development creep onto her block, which was listed on the Most Endangered Places of 2014 list by Historic Fort Worth because of the buildup.
Even though the 2700 block of Sandage Avenue is zoned single-family, developers are taking advantage of a city ordinance that allows up to five unrelated people to live in a home, creating what some call “stealth dormitories.”
The result is often historic, single-story homes being knocked down to make way for multi-storied homes, 5-bedroom houses that look out-of-place in the older neighborhoods.
“The man next door to us built two structures, and we call them dormitories. They are five bedroom, five bath houses, with a small living room and kitchen. That is not really a single-family house — that is a dormitory,” Latta said.
Further down Latta’s block, two similar, five-bedroom homes have replaced a sprawling, ranch-style 1950s house.
“I can’t believe the city allowed that,” she said.
But the city is taking steps to curb this trend, as it considers implementing an overlay for the TCU-area neighborhoods to limit the number of unrelated adults who can live in a single-family home to three.
Coupled with it is a citywide effort to control parking at single-family homes by requiring an additional parking space when there are more than three bedrooms. Currently only two parking spaces are required regardless how many bedrooms there may be.
It is not a problem that is unique to Fort Worth or other towns with a major university as a neighbor. Austin, for example, recently limited the number of unrelated people living under one roof from six to four in the central city.
Mayor Pro Tem W.B. “Zim” Zimmerman, who represents part of the TCU-area, said the issue is the influx of students into TCU-area residential neighborhoods, which creates tensions with parking, noise complaints and partying.
“The other thing is try and maintain the integrity of our single-family areas . … There is a whole lot of single-family areas that are now being built specifically as a target for students, taking over the area,” Zimmerman said.
“We have got to try and do something — whether we can do it or not would be a different problem. We have to try and see if there is a solution,” Zimmerman said.
The proposed changes
The proposed overlay would encompass neighborhoods surrounding TCU, including Frisco Heights, University Place, Paschal, Bluebonnet Place, Bluebonnet Hills, Westcliff, Westcliff Village, Colonial Hills, Tanglewood, University West, University Place, Park Hill, Park Hill Place and Berkley Place.
The city will hold several public sessions, including at neighborhood association meetings, to flush out potential problems and hear any suggestions, said Dana Burghdoff, assistant director for the planning and development department.
For example, she said, the city is considering whether to allow neighborhood associations to opt in to the restriction or apply it throughout the district and whether to grandfather properties with more than three bedrooms and a history of leases to more than three unrelated persons.
Burghdoff said she has had some push-back from developers, but several TCU-area developers who have actually built the mini-dorms did not return requests for interviews by the Star-Telegram.
Dak Hatfield, a developer in the near-southside, said he would expect developers in the area to protest the change or request to be grandfathered in.
“They are going to want to make sure their investment is protected,” Hatfield said, though he added he understands why the neighborhoods are pushing for the change.
“You are seeing student housing continuing to creep into a lot of these areas that have been there for a long time and historically have had families live there,” he said.
There have been 111 new single-family construction permits issued in the proposed overlay area since July 2001, according to city data.
Property values in the area are also increasing.
Latta’s home, valued at $397,000 for 2014, according to the Tarrant Appraisal District, has seen a 172 percent increase in land value alone since 2009, going from $66,000 in 2009 to $180,000 in 2014. One of the new homes next door is valued at $457,100, including $180,000 for the lot.
Though none of the developers were contacted, residents in the area say students are paying around $1,000 per bedroom in the houses. The total cost to live on campus is about $5,500 per semester.
Concerns about enforcement
Zimmerman said he is leaning toward supporting the overlay, but said the public input sessions will be vital in learning how to implement the overlay.
With many city ordinances, Zimmerman said, he is concerned about enforcement of the restriction, which would probably be incumbent on neighbors to report if they see violations.
Bethanne Chimbel, a resident of Frisco Heights, said she is also concerned about how the city would enforce the overlay, saying it is already hard for them to enforce the 5-unrelated persons rule.
“I think it has potential, but how are they going to regulate it? Are they going to go door to door and ask for birth certificates?” she asked.
“I think it is an interesting idea, but I also wonder if it is too little too late for a lot of the areas that I have seen.”
Chimbel lives in an area of Frisco Heights that is currently zoned to allow duplexes, but she and several other area residents are pushing to get several city blocks in Park Hill Place and Frisco Heights rezoned to single-family to keep dense developments out.
“We moved in the area knowing we would be surrounded by students, that is not really the issue, but the size and the scope of the density has changed so drastically and so quickly,” she said. “We are kind of on the end that hasn’t changed yet, and we are hoping to maintain that.”
A canary in the mine
Paula Deane Traynham, president of the Frisco Heights Neighborhood Association, wants Frisco Heights to be a canary in the mine for the other neighborhoods surrounding TCU.
Traynham has owned her 1939 cottage-style home for 30 years, but said only 60 homeowners are left in an area that has become a “magnet for development,” she said. The city has issued 66 residential demolition permits in Frisco Heights alone since May 2004.
“The closer that this development comes toward my house and the more my peaceful porch is encroached on, the more I think about it [selling],” Traynham said. “But I love my house, I love this neighborhood. I would love to live the rest of my days here, but at the same time, it is not the neighborhood I moved into and it never will be again.”
To her left, right and across the street, Traynham’s home is now surrounded by duplexes, which are allowed to fit up to five people in each unit, and come with a host of parking woes, noise complaints and plenty of red solo cups found in the streets and yards.
Traynham did say some areas of Frisco Heights needed some tender love and care, with some of the older homes falling into disrepair and neglect. But the recent development the neighborhood got was not what they were expecting.
“Don’t let this happen to your neighborhood. Y’all have these cute, classic little neighborhoods,” Traynham said she tells nearby neighborhood associations. “If you want to preserve them, now is the time to do it. Don’t let it sneak up on you, because that’s what it did to us.”
Brent Spear, president of the Bluebonnet Hills Neighborhood Association, said the warnings from Frisco Heights are something they take seriously, especially as Bluebonnet Hills attracts more and more student renters.
“Collectively, what I would say is most people are concerned about something going up that doesn’t fit the character of the neighborhood, and so I think it is a concern that we have and we have seen what is happened to Frisco Heights,” Spear said.
He said the neighborhood association will consider all the options, including pursuing historic designations if it is what the residents want, to protect Bluebonnett Hills, a 1920s-style neighborhood with little bungalows, open front porches and an old-time feel.
Jerre Tracy, executive director of Historic Fort Worth, said all of the neighborhoods surrounding TCU were included in the 2014 Most Endangered Places list because of the rapid development, and all of them could be eligible for a historic overlay or designation.
Still, Tracy said the occupancy overlay is a “step in the right direction.”
“The neighborhoods are changing overnight, and a lot of people don’t realize there is anything they can do,” Tracy said. “It is going to continue on unless the neighborhoods choose options that restrict the ability for those changes to happen.”
“Stealth” dorms popping up in other cities
Austin made an attempt at stopping what they called “stealth dorms” by limiting the number of unrelated persons who can live in a home from six to four in the central city.
The Austin City Council approved the temporary, two-year ordinance in March because of complaints from residents near the University of Texas, who claimed dorm-style homes brought an influx of students to single-family neighborhoods and irreversibly damaged the integrity of the neighborhoods.
Homes that already house more than four people are grandfathered in under the ordinance, as long as they don’t build large additions or make major renovations.
Research presented to the Austin City Council from Civic Analytics, an Austin-based firm, found about 1,800 properties in Austin house five or more unrelated people out of 331,000 households citywide.
Brian Kelsey, principal at Civic Analytics, however, also expressed concern in the study about how reducing the number of unrelated people living in a home in central Austin would affect affordability.
“Much more needs to be understood about why single-family zoned high-occupancy properties are more likely to be found in lower-income areas with increasing rents to avoid unintended consequences of reducing the limit from six to four unrelated people,” he said.
Arlington, Lubbock and San Marcos only allow two unrelated people to live together; College Station, Dallas, Denton and Waco all allow four unrelated people to live together; Byran allows four except in single-family zoning, which is restricted to two people living together and El Paso allows five.
TCU hopes for 100 percent residency on campus
So, if the student’s can’t move into housing near the campus, where would they go?
TCU’s eventual goal is to have 100 percent of undergraduate students live on campus for all four years, but that goal won’t be reached for several years, according to Lisa Albert, spokeswoman for TCU.
The projection with current building plans is to have 64 percent of the undergraduate students living on campus by 2021. Currently, they have 51 percent of undergraduate students living on campus. Albert did say they “will continue to build residence halls until the demand ceases.”
“It is not uncommon for cities to place overlays on neighborhoods surrounding universities to assist in maintaining the characteristics and living environments of established neighborhoods,” she said in an emailed statement.
“TCU regularly communicates its on-campus residential goals with the City and neighborhood associations located near TCU’s campus to help the community understand the University’s on-campus housing development plans.”
Latta and others in the area are also worried about what will happen if and when TCU meets its goal of 100 percent on-campus occupancy for students. They worry the five-bedroom, dorm-style cottages won’t appeal to family homebuyers, so could be left vacant and deteriorate.
“The city may have allowed this under the five unrelated persons rule, but it absolutely flies in the face of the spirit of the law,” said Latta, as she looked up at the two-story brick house neighboring her single-story home and the three-story apartment complexes looming over her backyard.
The modern houses next door and the apartments easily overlook the privacy fence into Latta’s yard, providing an open view of the home and master bedroom.
“It is just massive. It closes us in,” she said.