In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Brandon Bennett, director of the Code Compliance Department, discusses the role of code compliance in enforcing the current short term rental ordinance, and what residents need to know as the City Council considers a change.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For an unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Emily Wolf: Would you mind explaining what your department’s role is when it comes to short-term rentals in Fort Worth?
Brandon Bennett: The city being the 13th largest in the nation, has specialized, different departments, so that they become experts at different things. So you have development services, who are experts at zoning policy and the comprehensive plan. So they’re the ones who develop these ordinances that say whether or not short-term rentals can be in this zone or that zone. But they don’t have expertise in enforcement warrants, court processes, things like that. So they partner with code compliance, to do the enforcement for them. And so the two departments work closely together. And then we also work very closely with the different stakeholders, whether it be owners, neighbors, City Council, the different commissions, any time that we have a zoning case involving a residential area. As you can imagine, there’s a density of people who have a vested interest on one side or many sides, and we try to find that common ground.
Wolf: Gotcha. And how has your citation process changed while the city is considering changing its ordinance on short-term rentals and residential areas?
Bennett: So I’ve been with the city about 20 years, and the City Council policy actually predates me. So it’s probably 30 years old. And it’s not unique to Fort Worth. It is a policy that you see globally.
When cities are looking at enforcing a zoning ordinance, if there is land use action pending, that could potentially make that use lawful, cities typically will continue to investigate the violation and collect evidence of the violation, we will continue to minimize the impact of that violation on surrounding properties. But give the land use process the opportunity to work and get its way through to a conclusion. And then when that conclusion is reached, determine ‘Is there still a violation,’ right? Or is it allowed? Sometimes that occurs, and then the other is more likely than not, is that there’s been some adjustment to the land use policy or ordinance. And so there are some things that are now lawful and other things that are still unlawful. And that’s where we would start doing more strict enforcement and writing citations.
The exception to that, of course, is if there’s a nuisance on the property. So right now we have a short-term rental, and we are getting police calls and noise calls and litter calls. And you know, anything that’s a nuisance. If it’s impacting the livability of the neighborhood, those will continue to the enforcement process. All the other ones, we’ll get right up to issuing a citation. And then we kind of hold at that point.
Wolf: Would you mind elaborating a little bit on when a case rises to the level of a nuisance case? Does it have to be multiple times, for example, that you get a report?
Bennett: Yeah, there’s not a clean definition of when it rises to that level, because, you know, it could be one police call, but it could be a major police call. It could be one call, a police call, and we talked with the officer and the officer said they went out on a noise complaint and they didn’t hear any noise. They didn’t see anything unusual. And you know, they run into that type of call in single family dwellings all the time. So that would not be out of character for a residential neighborhood.
What we typically see, however, is that if a neighbor calls in a noise complaint that is a short-term rental, there is generally some type of party or ongoing outdoor activity that occurs at the property. And so both the police and code staff will collect evidence of that, and we will address that as a violation then, of course, any strict enforcement of criminal statutes if there’s a crime that occurs. If there is a public safety risk, if the property is substandard, if there are threats to the neighbors, you know, all of those things would come into play.
Wolf: How often does your department see land use cases coming up? Not exactly like short- term rentals for example, but cases where you do need to pause, keep doing your investigation but not take it to the citation level.
Bennett: I would say it’s pretty frequent. You know, in America, not just in Fort Worth, but in America.
People, when it comes to building permits or zoning regulations, I think there’s just a general feeling out there among a lot of people that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. In fact, oftentimes, what we find is they tried to get permission, they realized it was gonna be a lot of money, it was a lot of process, there wasn’t a guaranteed outcome. So they moved forward, pretending to be ignorant of the law, and then got caught. And then when we start the enforcement process, then they immediately start the land use process, and move toward some resolution.
So you know that there are different ways or different mechanisms, where folks like this actually paid more in the long run, it’s not a lot more. But you know, you build without a permit, there’s a way that your permit fees would be higher because of that. And one of the conversations I’m sure that’ll come up with short-term rentals is whatever we ended up with on the back side, as far as whether they’re allowed or not allowed will be some type of penalty, double penalty or extra penalty. For those that aren’t doing the right thing when they could ask.
Wolf: If someone sees an illicit short-term rental in their neighborhood, should they still report it to code compliance while the City Council is reconsidering the ordinance?
Bennett: So the current policy, council policy is that if we get a complaint, we will investigate the complaint. I would say to most landowners and neighbors and stuff, if it’s not a nuisance, it’s just one that you find by searching Airbnb or other sites online, not to call us and that may not be the case, say six months from now, when when there’s maybe a resolution, or at least some direction on this. But right now, we just don’t have the staff to go out and investigate all these.
So what happens is that these then compete with higher priorities, like this time of year with fireworks, tall grass is the priority. And, there’s just other things that come up during the summer, whether it be you know, pets that are outside and don’t have shelter and water, or people that are living in an apartment complex and don’t have a way to use air conditioning or windows to open, all of these higher priority things are really where we’re going to spend the majority of our time. And we’re not going to get to a lot of these short-term rentals. It’s just everybody’s calling them in.
So if we just get people to call in when they believe there’s a nuisance or some other activity that they find offensive. That means those are more likely to get investigated, because they’re not being hidden in this mass of just all short-term rental complaints that come in.
Wolf: What are some of the most common misconceptions you’re hearing from the public about short-term rentals and what’s going on in the city process right now?
Bennett: These short-term rentals are not new to Fort Worth. I think a lot of people think, oh, yeah, you know, these things are Airbnb. Five, six, seven years old, right? I can tell you 20 years ago, we were dealing with the short-term rentals around Will Rogers at Stock Show where people would rent out their house for the length of the stock show. And what would happen is that you think, well, it’s not that bad of a deal. But what would happen is that the cowboys would get up at three, four o’clock in the morning, and they’d idle their diesel trucks for an hour, they clean out the trailers, and there’d be animal waste on the street. You know, if the ranch owner was staying there, it was pretty quiet. But if the ranch hands were staying there, it was a party for three weeks.
There were all of these things that really drew attention to short-term rentals in Fort Worth, and led to the current policy that we have now. As I go around meetings, you know, I think that one side and I don’t want to carry there’s lots of there’s a whole list of pros and cons on both sides. But I think just generally speaking, I think you have on one side, you have the short-term rental folks that say, ‘Look, you know, we’re going to keep the landscaping up. We’re going to screen our customers. They’re just going to sleep there for the night just like everybody sleeps there for the night. It’s going to be OK.’
Then you have the neighborhood folks who say, ‘Hold on a minute. This is not what generally happens in a single-family, residential neighborhood.’ So on one hand, there’s some truth to the short-term rental folks in that I think a lot of this happens because they’re not lawful right now so they bend over backwards to make sure that the landscaping is good, the parking is good, you know, properties cleaned up. They make sure the tenants know they’re going to follow the rules, because they want to fly under the radar, right. So it creates self-policing.
But I think they’re wrong when they say it’s just like any other single-family dwelling, because it doesn’t matter whether you own or you rent a property in a neighborhood. Because you’re there for a longer period of time, there’s things that naturally occur that neighbors get to know neighbors, not all the time, not as often as we’d like. But it occurs. It is nothing more than a wave as you drive up and down the street, that some people have kids and the kids ride bikes, and they play with each other. And they go to school, and they’re home on summer vacation. And people work during the day, and they’re home at night. And there’s all these things that happen in a residential community.
That is different from what would happen with a short-term rental, where people are essentially, you know, they’re here for a night or two, and then they’re gone. They don’t have a stake in the neighborhood. They don’t have an investment in the neighborhood. And residential districts tend to be the most protected districts, in any city, that they’re designed to be the quietest district, the least offensive of activities, you know, you don’t want somebody opening up a mechanic shop right next to you, you know, all of those things. And so, I’m really watching this with an open mind, because I think that we’ve got some really good people on both sides of the issue. And I think at the end of the day that our mayor and our council have a real, real tough decision before them.
Wolf: And presuming the city decides to keep the ordinance in place, as it is bearing short-term rentals in residential areas, do you know at this point, if code compliance will use the data gathered by the third party vendor to crack down on those illicit short-term rentals?
Bennett: So that’s a yes and no… short-term rentals, some of these have been around for a while, the owner has done a good job of keeping them flying under the radar, that the list that is generated by the party if these are determined to be unlawful. And we’ve not dealt with them before, I would imagine that some of them, not all of them, but some of them will be investigated by us and will go through an education and notice process that will give them time to correct. Many of them will do that either through a land use process to become lawful, or the way they change their business practice.
What’s important is, you know, we may identify 2,000 short-term rentals. But the way that the state statute and this really runs pretty much nationally is when you look under landlord tenant laws that once there is a tendency that, say 30 days or longer. That takes us out of the short- term rental guidelines. So a short-term rental can advertise on Airbnb, and they can rent out the facility once every 30 days. They just can’t rent it out for more than 30 days. And so we see that, going back to the stock show example, that we will see a short-term rental around the stock show, but they’ll rent it to the same person for the length of the stock show. And that’s permissible, because it’s only that person for the 30 days.
Wolf: And is there anything else you’d like folks to know about? Either how your department’s handling short-term rentals right now, or complaints generally?
Bennett: Well, absolutely, I think focus on short-term rentals because people live in these neighborhoods where they’re located. This is probably a person’s largest investment over the course of their lifetime. It’s their retirement house. They like to sit on the porch and sip tea and not listen to a party next door. At least not a party every weekend next door.
So I think that it’s important for people to be engaged, to make sure that their voice is heard, but I don’t don’t necessarily think particularly at this juncture that it’s that important to be so engaged that it consumes a person’s life. Let the city know and, either through your elected officials or through one of the departments, you know that if you have some concerns, shoot an email to become part of the record.
But most certainly, as we go through the process, and we start developing some potential recommendations or options, I think people on all sides of the issue need to make sure that they read it carefully. They consider it carefully and they make sure that they are involved in the process to make sure that their voice is heard.
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
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