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The Cost of Living in a Dirt Home

A new classification system for adobe structures has caused a big jump in property taxes for some Presidio County homeowners.

Adobe is one of the most humble building materials around: it’s essentially mud, water and straw, shaped into brick, and dried in the sun. However, it’s also gained cachet in and around Marfa.

"Adobe is cool," according to Paul Hunt, who formerly served on the Presidio County Appraisal District (PCAD) board of directors and the Appraisal Review Board. He says home buyers from Austin, Houston and New York have driven up the valuation of adobe properties. On real estate site Zillow, severaladobe homes are currently listed for over half a million dollars; that’s in one of the poorest counties in the country.

At the beginning of this year, the PCAD created a new classification for adobe structures to reflect their true market value. According to Hunt, 380 homes were reclassified as adobe, resulting in a markup of approximately 60% for many.

Last month, about 20 Marfa residents attended a meeting of the PCAD’s board of directors to protest the adobe tax. Miguel Mendías was one attendee. He recently moved into a humble casita that had been owned by his great-grandfather. The windows are cracked, and adobe bricks peek through the walls where stucco has crumbled off. The house doesn’t have electricity or sewage, and no one’s lived in it for years. Yet the property's appraisal nearly doubled this year. As a result, property taxes for 2017 rose from $900 to $1,600.

Mendías says the tax increase will challenge his ability to make the house habitable again, and keep it in his family. He’s already paying back taxes on the home in order to keep it from being repossessed. For Mendías, the property tax hike brings up emotions that cut deeper than financial stress. He fears that despite being a fifth generation Marfan, “I’ll never ever ever be able to live here.”

Emily Hocker was also at the PCAD meeting. She's owned an adobe home in Marfa since the early 1990s. She bought the crumbling structure for $5,000, promising it's owner that she would restore it rather than knock it down. Hocker says her home's appraisal has risen steadily over the last couple of decades. But this year, it increased by $39,000. "I thought that was outrageous," she says.

Bill Messick works at the Texas comptroller’s office, where he’s been auditing appraisal districts since the late 1980s. He says that while property taxes are rising across the state, appraisal hikes based on a single building material are extremely rare. “I’ve never seen a building material phenomenon – like the adobe – ever in Texas happen anywhere else,” says Messick.

Adobe valuations are on the agenda for the next PCAD meeting, which will be held at the Presidio ISD boardroom in Presidio on December 7. The next opportunity to make changes to appraisal classifications won’t be until fall of 2018.