As Fort Worth population booms, pushback against new apartments isn’t budging

On a warm Wednesday afternoon in March, a team of Colleyville property investors, clad in loafers and dress shirts, filed into Fort Worth’s city hall chamber with an ambitious proposal.

They sought the zoning commission’s blessing for a 12.2 acre apartment development on the city’s northern outskirts, on a patch of land off Timberland Boulevard packed between single-family subdivisions.

The developers walked through a detailed slideshow extolling their project’s potential virtues. It would, they said, pump hundreds of thousands of tax dollars into city and school district budgets. Its residents would have a negligible impact on surrounding traffic, all while luring in much desired retailers. Its 265 units would also help drag down the city’s ballooning rents, welcome financial respite for an ever-growing segment of residents who can’t afford houses.

A group of nearby homeowners then took turns at the dais. They spent the next 30 minutes tearing into the proposal, sounding off common fears: neighborhood roads couldn’t handle hundreds of new vehicles, and classrooms couldn’t manage a surge of new students; apartments were also eyesores, havens for crime that would leer over their yards, tank their property values and disrupt the semi-country atmosphere they’d worked so hard to cultivate.

“Our neighborhood thrives on its serene character defined by single-family residences,” the president of a nearby homeowners association told commissioners. “A sudden shift toward multifamily housing may jeopardize the very essence that attracted us to this neighborhood.”

The developers attempted a rebuttal. They cited studies and statistics casting doubt on resident worries and promised to further accommodate their wishes — but to no avail. Zoning commissioners recommended denying the change, and the case faded from future agendas.

A patch of land on Timberland Boulevard in north Fort Worth that developers attempted to rezone for apartments. The resistance they faced from nearby homeowners epitomized wariness of multifamily housing across the city.
A patch of land on Timberland Boulevard in north Fort Worth that developers attempted to rezone for apartments. The resistance they faced from nearby homeowners epitomized wariness of multifamily housing across the city.

The episode captured frictions familiar to major cities across the country: developers pushing to build denser housing in response to demographic and market demands, and homeowners fighting them (resistance often referred to — sometimes pejoratively — as not-in-my-backyard-ism, NIMBYism for short).

Fort Worth would seem to be fertile ground for anti-apartment advocates. Around 90% of city residents live in auto-oriented suburbs; more than 50% say their top neighborhood preference is a “single-family subdivision far from Downtown.” Spooked by recent bursts of apartment construction, city leaders in 2021 weighed a ban on new multifamily zoning.

But the city is changing. Tens of thousands flock to Cowtown every year, yet fewer and fewer of its residents have money for homes. Urban planners worry an overreliance on single-family residences to raise taxes and house new citizens could stilt the city’s growth. Average rents for existing units, meanwhile, have almost doubled since 2010.

The Star-Telegram analyzed hundreds of zoning cases and two decades of permitting data to figure out just how deep Fort Worth’s love for single-family homes runs. It found that the city’s preference for low density housing is alive and well, despite the warnings of some experts and city planners.

City leaders approved most of the zoning changes they’ve evaluated in recent years, but they appeared more inclined to support expansions of single-family housing than new multifamily projects. Fort Worth also builds far fewer apartment units than its booming Texas peers.

Why might Fort Worth need more apartments?

Many experts and Fort Worth planners treat denser forms of housing as an inevitable necessity.

Fort Worth boasts vast expanses of vacant land, especially in the north and west. As of 2015, it had twice as much unused territory as Dallas, and more “developable acreage” than Frisco, McKinney, Plano and Allen combined.

Yet the supply of land is dwindling as demand for it soars. Land prices, as a result, have swelled. Buying up swathes of ranchland and plopping down acres of starter homes was once a reliably profitable affair. But asking prices and property taxes are on the upswing. With less space to house more people at a higher cost, building more and building tighter becomes a more economical alternative.

“Denser construction and infill construction makes a lot of sense in many situations,” said Nick Walsh, the vice president of development at the Dallas office of NRP Group, a national multifamily developer. “You can get maybe 300 units in an apartment building on 10 acres. How many single-family homes can you get on that same thing? A fraction of that.”

Homeownership rates in the Fort Worth area have hovered around 64% since 2000, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the median income Fort Worth family can no longer afford the median value house in the city.

Cash-strapped, many would-be homebuyers are turning to (or sticking with) renting. Yet the cost of rental units, largely comprised of apartments, has spiked in tandem with the appetite for them.

More than half of Metroplex tenants today are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their monthly income on housing expenses. The National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit research group, finds that DFW, among major metro areas, has one of the nation’s worst shortages of affordable rental units.

“When we’re not building, all it does is really have the hardest impact on those at the very bottom of the totem pole,” Walsh said. “And those are the ones that are pushed out of the city, or they’re finding themselves farther and farther away from jobs and their community and services.”

An apartment complex under construction on North Riverside Drive in Fort Worth this past May. Fort Worth constructs fewer multifamily residences than its big Texas peer cities.
An apartment complex under construction on North Riverside Drive in Fort Worth this past May. Fort Worth constructs fewer multifamily residences than its big Texas peer cities.

Barriers to apartment building abound. Some cities (like Houston) have no zoning regulations. Fort Worth has many. The city sets aside 46% of its land for single-family homes; less than 10% allows for multifamily construction. A developer savvy enough to snap up the right property would then have to comply with a web of limitations on how tall their project could be, how few parking spaces it could have, how much open space it required, and so on.

“Most zoning is geared toward single-family, and that is a big issue across the country right now,” said Jay Parsons, a rental housing economist and head of investment strategy and research at Texas real estate company Madera. “So that means, oftentimes, multifamily is only zoned for very expensive areas, which then limits how affordable your rents can be.”

Developers forced to rezone their property often run into the steadfast opposition of vocal, organized and politically active homeowners associations.

“The only people there representing that [development] are the developers, it’s the quote unquote greedy developer and their attorney; it’s easy to say no to that,” Walsh said. “But the folks that are left out of that conversation are those that are going to actually benefit from those units being provided.”

Parsons suspects many of the young professionals relocating to North Texas wouldn’t want to settle in a quiet suburb even if they could afford to.

“There’s not a lot of single 26-year-olds who want to go buy a suburban subdivision house,” he said. “You’re dealing with different demographics” than in years past.

The politicians, bureaucrats and consultants planning Fort Worth’s future sense these trends.

Changing city zoning to “increase residential density at key intersections, along major corridors, or along transit lines” is one pillar of the city’s 2023 housing affordability strategy, a 128-page game plan devised by city leaders to combat blight and runaway housing prices.

Constructing denser neighborhoods is also an oft-repeated theme in the city’s 2023 comprehensive plan, hundreds of pages of council-approved spreadsheets and colored maps designed to chart the city’s course in the coming decades.

Its authors warn that Fort Worth “is at risk of becoming overly dependent on low density residential” as it grows. It suggests sustainable expansion will rest, in part, on more mixed-use developments and “appropriately located” apartments.

Population density is, for instance, the bedrock of functional public transportation. There’s wide consensus among urban planners that well-organized public transit usually yields substantial employment and productivity gains that more than pay for the costs of the system. Shared train and bus routes are, they observe, also safer, cleaner, and less earth-damaging than freeways (and usually help unclog them).

“Population density, encouraged by mixed-use centers, allows for the efficient use of public services (police, fire, public transportation); which improves quality of service while reducing expenditures,” the comprehensive plan notes.

Residents of far-flung subdivisions often complain about having to drive miles to replenish their pantries. Putting more people in one place, apartment supporters note, tends to attract more stores closer to homes. Multifamily buildings also use less land and energy to house more people than their single-family cousins.

In the zone

To assess whether Fort Worth is following its own forecasts, the Star-Telegram reviewed the outcomes of every city zoning case between August 2019 — as far back as the city’s online database goes for zoning votes — and April 2024.

According to the paper’s analysis, the City Council voted on at least 465 cases involving residential land use in that time frame. The Star-Telegram documented two kinds of zoning changes: those designating land from one residential use to another, and those switching between residential and non-residential uses.

It focused on three main outcomes: how the change affected the allowed housing density on the property; whether the change expanded or reduced the allowed space for apartments; and, conversely, whether the change expanded or reduced the allowed space for single-family residences.

Before diving in — a quick note: zoning cases occasionally flounder before council members formally vote on them. City leaders will sometimes ward off potentially controversial or ill-advised proposals early in the planning process — which usually takes months — before they’re picked apart in public. Strong enough neighborhood pushback or changing financials can persuade developers to dump a project before receiving a final verdict. Given the difficulty tracking those unrealized cases, the analysis doesn’t account for them.

How has Fort Worth rezoned land in recent years?

Over the past five years, Fort Worth's city council has taken up at least 465 zoning cases involving changes in residential land use. The map below lays out the size, location, and outcome of each case with circles colored by the zoning outcome. Tap the locations for more info or to zoom into that area. You can also view cases by zoning outcome, density change, original zoning, and proposed change by tapping on the list in the charts on the map. See the key below for explanations of each zoning category and outcome label.

Zoning Categories Key


SOURCE: The City of Fort Worth provided the data, and the city has removed cases involving juvenile-related data.

Zoning Categories (ranked in increasing order of permitted density)


The key below is a simplified cheat sheet for the messy medley of ordinances and codes governing land use in Fort Worth. The key — for residential spaces — is categorized in increasing order of density and intensity of use. The letters represent the city’s shorthand for each category.

One-Family Residential 2.5 acres (A-2.5A): single-family lot, minimum lot size 2.5 acres
One-Family Residential 1 acre (A-43): single family lot, minimum lot size 1 acre
One-Family Residential ½ acre (A-21): single family, minimum lot size ½ acre
One-Family Residential 10,000 sq. ft. (A-10): single-family, minimum lot size 10,000 square feet
One-Family Residential 7,500 sq. ft. (A-7.5): single-family, minimum lot size 7,500 square feet
One-Family Residential 5,000 sq. ft. (A-5): single-family, minimum lot size 5,000 square feet
One-Family Residential Restricted (AR): single-family, minimum lot size 3,500 square feet
Two-Family Residential (B): duplex, minimum lot size 5,000 square feet for attached dwellings, 7,500 square feet for detached dwellings
Zero Lot Line / Cluster (R1): single- or two-family residence with at least one boundary of the structure on the edge of the lot, minimum lot size 2,500 square feet
Townhome / Cluster (R2): designation for attached single-family residences in a townhouse or rowhouse style, including all uses in zero lot line
Low Density Multifamily (CR): apartments, 16 units per acre maximum
Medium Density Multifamily (C): apartments, 24 units per acre maximum
High Density Multifamily (D): apartments, 32-36 units per acre maximum
Urban Residential (UR): apartments, up to 60 residential units per acre
Low Intensity Mixed-Use (MU-1): a blend of commercial spaces and high density housing, up to 80 residential units per acre
High Intensity Mixed-Use (MU-2): a blend of commercial spaces and high density housing, with an unlimited ceiling for residential unit density

Neighborhood Commercial Restricted (ER): low-intensity commercial spaces, such as bookstores, drug stores, studios, offices, among other “public and civic uses” (no alcohol sales permitted)
Neighborhood Commercial (E): low-intensity commercial spaces, including all uses permitted in ER, in addition to gas stations, restaurants, bakeries, retail stores (alcohol sales permitted)
General Commercial Restricted (FR): more intense commercial uses, like movie theaters, bowling alleys, auto repair shops, hotels, healthcare facilities, large retail stores (no alcohol sales permitted)
General Commercial (F): all commercial uses outlined in FR, including clubs, bars, skating rinks (alcohol sales permitted)
Intensive Commercial (G): all commercial uses permitted in F, but with a height maximum of 120 ft. instead of 45 ft.
Central Business (H): all commercial uses permitted in G, plus printing presses (with an unlimited building height)

Light Industrial (I): all uses permitted in G, plus food processing, animal hospitals, warehouses, printing, and other light manufacturing
Medium Industrial (J): more intense industrial uses, including breweries, grain elevators, power plants, poultry slaughtering
Heavy Industrial (K): high intensity industrial uses, including asphalt plants, welding and machine shops, stock yards, metal production facilities

Agricultural (AG): farmland, ranches, animal nurseries
Community Facilities (CF): churches, government offices, schools, and other public facilities
Floodplain (O-1)
Office Midrise (OM): office spaces with a maximum of 80 feet, often paired with neighborhood commercial uses
Manufactured Housing: mobile home parks

Planned Developments (PD): specially tailored plots designed for a usage or style of building that doesn’t fit tidily within an existing zoning category. All planned developments, typically labeled by number, have a “base” designation (e.g. one-family, neighborhood commercial, etc.). Some planned developments documented here include…
PD-50: for all uses in neighborhood commercial, specific intent unclear
PD-119: for all uses in neighborhood commercial, plus storage for used furniture
PD-136: for a marina and restaurant with alcohol sales
PD-310: for multifamily and commercial uses with a residential density of 30-36 units per acre
PD-403: for all uses in heavy industrial, plus gas drilling
PD-437: for transitional housing apartments for women and young children
PD-456: for all uses in neighborhood commercial, plus a hotel or motel within 1,000 feet of a residential neighborhood
PD-522: for single-family residences ranging in density from A-43 to R2, with specific design standards for the Walsh Ranch development
PD-569: for a community center in the Walsh Ranch development
PD-572: for retail business, with specific standards for the Walsh Ranch development
PD-573: for all uses in high-intensity mixed-use, with specific building standards
PD-662: for all uses in neighborhood commercial, excluding tattoo parlors, pool halls, detached poll signs
PD-760: for light industrial use, excluding chicken coops, coal and wood storage, and some other uses
PD-913: for 5,000 square foot lot single-family homes, with specific design standards
PD-915: for all uses in restricted neighborhood commercial, plus assisted living facilities
PD-922: for all uses in neighborhood commercial with waivers for outdoor storage
PD-964: for all uses in neighborhood commercial, plus a mini warehouse
PD-1088: for all uses in high density multifamily with waivers for some codes
PD-1095: for all uses in medium density multifamily, with specific waivers for senior care facilities
PD-1185: for all uses in neighborhood commercial restricted, plus an event center
PD-1222: for all uses in medium density multifamily, with waivers for some codes
PD-1259: for all uses in low-intensity mixed-use, with waivers for height, parking requirements
PD-1260: for all uses in urban residential, with waivers for design
PD-SU: a development with a “special use”

Form Based Codes: specialized zoning areas governing specific neighborhoods or streets. Generally anchored in high-density, mixed-use activity, form based codes are designed to foster uniformity — in building appearance, style, and use. Some examples include…
Camp Bowie (CB)
Near Southside (NS)
Panther Island (PI)
Stockyards (SY)

The City Council has given the thumbs-up to most zoning changes that have appeared on its docket between 2019 and April 2024. Proposals promoting lower density passed at higher rates than high-density projects, but NIMBY impulses hardly seem to run riot.

Over the past five years, developers and property owners put forward 124 proposals to increase residential density; council members approved just over 78% of those changes. By comparison, they approved 96.97% of efforts to decrease residential density.

During that time period, council members gave the go-ahead for around 79% of 132 efforts to expand multifamily zoning. Projects reducing multifamily’s imprint fared better, with just over 93% of projects receiving the council’s blessing.

The proportions are flipped for single-family projects. Around 95% of single-family zoning expansions passed; 78% of reductions succeeded.

Of the 23 cases that replaced multifamily with single-family zoning, only one failed. Of the 32 cases that attempted the opposite, eight failed.

Framed another way: only one of the 60 relevant zoning changes denied by the City Council since 2019 would’ve reduced residential density. Twenty-six rejected cases would’ve increased permitted housing density. Multifamily expansions made up just over a third of rejections; single family expansions accounted for three.

The Star-Telegram reached out to city council members Gyna Bivens, Carlos Flores, and Alan Blaylock to discuss these trends and decisions. Bivens and Flores are the council’s longest-serving representatives, and Blaylock oversees a home-building hotspot in far north Fort Worth. None returned requests for comment.

With permission

Given Fort Worth’s land use rules, what kind of housing is the city actually building?

Flourish Studio
Flourish Studio

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the data source for the Star-Telegram analysis, lumps duplexes and triplexes into the multifamily category (though buildings with five or more units account for the overwhelming majority of multifamily permits). It also measures permits for units, not structures. For example, Fort Worth issued 1,214 construction permits for multifamily residences in 2001; the city authorized 1,214 new units within multifamily buildings, not 1,214 individual apartment complexes.

Roughly four out of every five residential building permits issued by the city in the early 2000s were for single-family homes. The gap between one- and multifamily construction narrowed in the 2010s, a wave of apartment building likely fed by intersecting currents: rapid population growth and plummeting home affordability.

But the chasm reopened in 2020. Since then, single-family houses accounted for around two thirds of all permitted residential units. Only twice in the past two decades — in 2016 and 2019 — has Fort Worth green-lit more multifamily than single-family residences. Fort Worth authorized 400 fewer multifamily units last year than it did in 2017, despite absorbing roughly 100,000 new residents in the past six years.

Fort Worth’s residential construction patterns largely mimic state and national trends (barring the 2016 and 2019 spurts). Real estate experts note that sky-high interest rates have restrained efforts to get apartment projects off the ground; a pandemic construction boom has also depressed rents, making new buildings harder to justify to investors. But explanations for the renewed gap between single- and multifamily construction are less conclusive.

Cowtown has also built far fewer apartments than other big Texas cities in recent years. Close to 90% of residential permits issued by Austin in 2023 were for multifamily abodes. They accounted for roughly 70% of permitted residences in Dallas and almost 60% of those in Houston. In San Antonio, the split was roughly even. Apartments have made up the majority of new construction in Dallas, Houston, and Austin almost every year since 2010; the ratios in San Antonio have oscillated around the 50% mark.

The disparity could claim any number of causes. Many experts point to land availability as one of the most significant. Fort Worth still has ample space to unfurl acres and acres of suburbs and subdivisions; other Texas metropolises have less, leaving developers with few ways to build but up. Fort Worth, as noted earlier, has around twice as much untouched land as its more built-out eastern neighbor.

“I think that there’s been land to expand, and so there wasn’t that same need to go higher and to go denser,” Walsh, the multifamily developer, posited.

Is density enough?

Neither Walsh nor many of his peers claim simply mass-producing new apartment complexes is the silver bullet for Fort Worth’s housing struggles.

“It’s not an easy, straightforward answer, that if you build density, you’re going to solve affordability, and solve the budget problem for the city, and solve traffic,” said Daniel Oney, the director of research at the Texas A&M Real Estate Research Center. “It depends on how you do it.”

The burst of apartment construction during the pandemic may offer tenants short term financial relief in the form of discounts or rent drops. But many of the same upwards pressures driving up down payments may jack up rents in the long run.

“As land prices go up, the cost of new housing construction goes up; so you have to acquire the land, and then the rents required to make these projects work go up,” Parsons, the rental economist, said. “That just means that more and more of the new multifamily construction is going to gear toward the top of the market.”

A new apartment development coming together in May on land that once housed affordable housing development Cavile Place in Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood. Many experts believe building more multifamily residences is an essential but insufficient step towards lowering housing costs.
A new apartment development coming together in May on land that once housed affordable housing development Cavile Place in Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood. Many experts believe building more multifamily residences is an essential but insufficient step towards lowering housing costs.

The affordability puzzle has far more pieces than quantity alone, he continued — among them housing subsidies, public-private partnerships, and other tools to keep good units within the reach of low-income residents.

Parsons and city officials think Fort Worth needs more housing of all densities and designs.

“We need all types of housing at attainable affordability rates to accommodate people in all stages of life,” a spokesperson for Fort Worth’s development services department wrote to the Star-Telegram. “In the future, the city will be exploring ways to facilitate different housing types via zoning and other incentives.”