Manicured lawns sit beside overgrown, abandoned lots in the Historic Southside. Choking brush, piles of trash and used tires wait for the neighborhood code compliance officer to take notice.
Historic Southside is situated in the 76104 ZIP code, where the majority of weed and high grass violations are issued in Fort Worth.
More code compliance officers operate per square mile inside the I-820 loop than outside. Code notices are rare in neighborhoods like Park Glen or Arlington Heights; it’s common to see a notice taped to the door of a home in Ash Crescent or Morningside.
The Fort Worth Report analyzed months of code compliance data to find which ZIP codes received the most notices and violations. Of the city’s ZIP codes, 76104 stood out among the rest.
Fort Worth issued 163 weed or tall grass violations in the 76104 ZIP code from Jan. 1 to April 29, more than double the amount issued in the next highest ZIP code. The trend worsens during the spring and summer months, when grass takes off.
“You get up into this part of the ZIP code, and it’s not necessarily Better Homes and Gardens, right,” Brandon Bennett, code compliance director for the city, said as he drove through a neighborhood Aug. 3.
Bennett pulled over every several blocks to point out a fresh code violation — grass over 12 inches tall; litter pouring out of a shed and into the street; trimmed branches piled up on the sidewalk.
The uneven distribution of code compliance violations tells Bennett that his code officers are doing their job. Unmowed lots bring fire risk, rodents, and illegal activity, he said.
“One of the reasons why we mow as much as we mow around here is because if we don’t mow it, nobody else is going to mow it,” Bennett said.
Some years, high grass is such a problem in the 76104 ZIP code that code compliance calls in officers from other zones across the city.
“Some days you couldn’t even see straight because all you can see is high grass,” T.J. Guerin, supervisor for the Code Compliance central division, said.
Tall grass is the least of some residents’ worries. Geraldine Williams, secretary for the Historic Southside Neighborhood Association, said she’d like code compliance focus less on weed violations and more on larger issues, like homelessness, litter and illegal activity on empty lots.
Williams’ house falls between two railroad lines cutting through the southside, a homeless shelter to the south and the highways slicing between neighborhoods across south Fort Worth.
Litter is constantly dropped into her yard. Sometimes she picks it up; other times it becomes too much to keep up with, and she resorts to kicking it from her yard. 76104 has the lowest life expectancy in the state, according to research conducted by UT Southwestern Medical Center in 2019, and private developers have long neglected the area.
“We have plenty of issues that need to be taken care of instead of worrying about some darn grass,” Williams said.
Still, every year code compliance shifts resources away from derelict buildings and litter abatement and toward enforcing high grass and weed violations during peak growing season, Bennett said.
Code compliance springs into action as snow melts
Spring means a new round of code notices in 76104. Code officers issue high-grass notices once every spring. The next time code visits a home it will likely be with a violation — then with a crew of mowers.
Once mowers visit a home or lot, the city issues a lien on the property. It costs the city about $350, including administrative fees, to mow a lawn. A lien that accrues interest will likely end up costing the land owner up to $5,000.
The mowing taking place in 76104 right now, is being paid for by liens placed on property in other neighborhoods, like the rapidly developing Como neighborhood, or Fairmount to the west of the Historic Southside.
“We collect about the same amount that we spend every year,” Bennett said.
One of the biggest challenges Guerin and other code officers face is helping residents understand the language of a notice, and what happens next, he said. He often has to explain that if a resident agrees to fix their property, they won’t be fined at first, and will work to come up with an appropriate schedule for completion of the repairs.
“‘We can work with anyone, but they have to show progress,” he said.
For example, if homeowners have a truckload of trash piled up in their backyard, a code compliance officer might explain the options, whether they want to put it on the curb for bulk collection or take it to one of the city-run drop off centers. The officer might give them a month to make progress, if they check in a week later there’s no progress, they’ll issue a citation.
“We’re code compliance. We’re the ones who say, ‘Property owner, you have to be accountable,” Guerin said.
If the homeowners are facing larger problems, such as large appliances or old cars stacked in a backyard, the officer might give them months to rectify the issue. As long as the officer sees progress, Guerin said, they likely won’t issue a citation.
What is a lien?
A lien refers to a legal claim against property that can be used as collateral to repay a debt. In this case, the debt would be paid to the city of Fort Worth.
Focusing resources, not citations
The impacts of code violations don’t end in the neighborhood. Walking into City Hall, residents come to council member Chris Nettles for solutions to their code compliance issues.
One young man inherited property from his grandmother in the Historic Southside neighborhood. He wants to move in and reap the benefits of homeownership, but first he has to get the building up to code.
Nettles said in a community that already struggles with poverty, lack of grocery stores and health resources, whose residents have the lowest life expectancy in the state, code violations aren’t accomplishing anything productive.
“We are doing ourselves a disservice to diversity, equity and equality,” Nettles said.
In Nettles’ view, residents are trapped in a cycle of being issued code notices, not having the resources to rectify the violation, and then being stuck with a lien on their property; eventually reducing the amount of revenue property owners can pull out of their assets. Instead of issuing citations, the city should offer resources, Nettles said.
“You’re stealing homes, stealing revenue out of a community who wants to thrive, wants to strive,” Nettles said.
Fort Worth offers programs through its neighborhood services department, where residents can receive grants to make improvements to aging homes. Those programs should be expanded in the city’s budget, Nettles said.
“You can focus resources, and you don’t have to issue citations,” Nettles said. “Although it may be the area of highest need, it should not be the highest citation area.”
Guerin wasn’t aware of any similar programs for helping people with consistent lawn maintenance, but stressed that providing those resources is not the job of a code officer.
“It would be kind of a conflict of interest,” he said. “If I said, ‘Hey, you know what? My cousin can help you out, he has a lawn service.’ ”
Development is coming — but it may not benefit longtime residents
Driving through the 76104 neighborhood, Bennett occasionally points to plots of land the city likely owns and maintains. There are far fewer under city management than there used to be, Bennett said.
The city used to own swaths of land in 76104, and maintained them using parks mowing crews. When the city sold its lots to residents during the 2008 recession, upkeep went to the new owners.
“Some of the lots are being taken care of by folks. But then there’s other lots where people I think, had the best of intentions and things didn’t work out. And now they’re not maintaining them. They can’t afford to maintain them, whatever the case may be. And now we’re back to mowing.”
Guerin has seen fewer weed violations in 76104 this year compared to the last several, he said. While it can partially be attributed to the drought and resulting slow grass growth, he also credits the increase in housing projects on the previously vacant lots.
“That is one thing that a lot of people aren’t really paying attention to, is that 76104 is really being developed,” he said.
While situated in the 76104 ZIP code, the Fairmount neighborhood has in recent decades seen a revitalization driven primarily by outside development of the area. Bennett said while he’s sure his code officers would like to take credit for the neighborhood’s turnaround, their citations are more of a stop-gap until investment flows in and takes over.
“Investment is both a blessing and a curse,” Bennett said. “It’s a blessing because there’s less litter, there’s less blight, but it’s a curse because it means that there’s more value to everything there, which means things cost more.”
Development is happening slowly but surely in the Historic Southside, Nettles said. Vacant lots get developed by homebuilders one-by-one.
To Williams, who has lived in the Historic Southside for over 50 years, the new houses seem to pop up overnight — and it’s not making her situation any better. While there’s been dozens of houses built in the last year, it hasn’t resulted in less litter or fewer code violations, she said.
“I don’t know if people are buying them, renting them,” she said. “It’s ridiculous that our neighborhood doesn’t look any better than it does.”
The solution will lie in listening to the homeowners already living in the Historic Southside, Williams said. Constructing new homes won’t make the foam plates and cups she has to pick up from her front yard on a regular basis disappear.
For his part, Bennett understands residents’ frustrations with frequent litter and other code violations. Until development reaches a peak in the area, he said, his officers are the best way to manage the situation.
“This is not good for a neighborhood,” Bennett said, looking at a pile of trash flowing out of a backyard shed through a chain link fence separating private property from a public sidewalk.
“I worry from an equity standpoint, you know, are we doing enough? Is there more that we can do to help people do the right thing? A property like this? They’re not going to do it on their own. I can tell you that right now. It’s not going to happen.”
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
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