There are lots of folks waiting with bated breath to hear how the council votes tonight on the hot-button issue of the day: the lifting of the zoning restrictions passed in 2006 that prohibit 13 pawn shop/payday lenders now operating in Fort Worth from reopening if the businesses are destroyed by fire, a natural disaster or if they close for two years running. . (Originally the number of pawn shops affected was 16; three have since closed.)
In early April, over the objections of councilwoman Kathleen Hicks who has a disproportionate number of these lenders in her district, the city council voted 8-1 to lift the restrictions on this group that were passed by another city council in 2006 in an effort to keep disruptive businesses from operating in or near residential neighborhoods.
However, that was just the first step. The issue then went to the zoning commission that voted 9-0 to deny the change. (Victory for Kathleen Hicks, Blotch, April 15.) The issue now goes back to the council for a final vote tonight.
The zoning commissioners listened to the neighborhoods whose representatives showed up en masse to oppose the change, even those whose districts are relatively free of pawnshops. They feared what community activists Rita Vinson of the Brentwood-Oak Hills Neighborhood Association and Libby Willis, president of the League of Neighborhoods both said would be a precedent that would open the doors to all of the other businesses now under some type of zoning restrictions to petition for equal treatment.
Another fear raised by the residents, especially those in Hicks’ district where eight of the 13 operate, is the fact that if the restrictions are lifted, the existing pawn shops would be able to expand, which many opponents believe is the real purpose behind the push to lift the restrictions.
And expand they could, said Dana Burghdoff, deputy director of the city planning department who wrote in an email that “Yes, approval of the zoning to allow the pawn shop use by right would allow them to expand in place, provided they can meet … development standards.” However, she added that there might be discussion by the council at tomorrow’s meeting to add a restriction that would prohibit the affected pawnshops from expanding.
Council members Hicks and Sal Espino were the only ones to respond to the Weekly. Hicks, of course, will vote to uphold the zoning commission’s recommendation. Espino, who voted with the majority when the issue first came up, said, “My position remains the same, if any proposal actually increases the number of pawn shops, I am not in favor.” If there is no increase, he said, he would not oppose the zoning change. Nothing in the proposal that went to zoning would allow an increase, but it could allow an expansion. Espino added that the real issue for payday lenders and pawn shops are the exhorbatant interest rates. “This is an issue for state regulation,” he said, and should be addressed by the legislature.
Cash America is one big outfit. The pawnshop/payday lender giant that operates under several names took in $1.1 billion in total revenues in 2009 from operations that span the globe. Of its 500 locations in the United States, 200 of them are in Texas – and of those, 18 Cash America pawn/payday lender storefronts or affiliates such as Mr. Payroll are in Fort Worth. Seven of the original16 pawn shop/payday lenders that fell under the restrictive zoning clause are owned by Cash America, and the multinational company with headquarters in Fort Worth has been lobbying the city council for two years to get the restriction lifted.
Last November it hired Tonya Veasey, wife of Fort Worth state representative Marc Veasey, to lobby the council on behalf of Cash America to get the restrictions lifted. In a November letter to all members, Veasey touted the benefits of the pawn shop/payday lender industry as an “important money resource to many with very little alternatives. … For residents … that are not provided with true banking options,” she wrote, “Cash America and First Cash Pawn provide the only safe and reliable … financial services.”
Bringing up the specter of another Hurricane Katrina and as if the entire financial survival of low-income people depended on Cash America, Veasey wrote that if “this simple return to previous zoning requirements is not adopted, our communities could be faced with permanently losing their only lifeline to financial services.” The zoning restriction isn’t unfair to Cash America, rather it puts an “unfair burden on the residents of underserved neighborhoods,” she wrote.
Veasey of course didn’t mention the more than 400 percent in interest and fees that can accrue to those in the “underserved neighborhoods” where payday lenders and pawnshops operate. Nor did she mention that for many of the working poor who use the services they are caught in a downward spiral that too often sees them owing up to $5,000 for a $500 loan.
However, she convinced most of the council and Mayor Mike Moncrief that Cash America and its cohorts are “good neighbors” who are simply serving “the financial needs of the community.”
Vinson couldn’t disagree more. In a recent letter to the council that she released today, she wrote that if the council approves the proposal on May 4, over the unanimous objections of the city zoning commission and Hicks, the council member most affected by the change, as well as the strong objections of neighborhoods from all segments of the city and the League of Neighborhoods, then the only winners will be Cash America and First Cash Pawn “with some other pawn shops riding on their coattails.
“The losers would be everyone else.” Stay tuned.