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Marfa’s chamber of commerce pushes for new regulations on Airbnbs

Marfa City Council members listen to public comments about local housing issues at a meeting on April 11, 2023.
Travis Bubenik
Marfa Public Radio
Marfa City Council members listen to public comments about local housing issues at a meeting on April 11, 2023.

Marfa’s chamber of commerce is urging local officials to consider some kind of new restrictions on short-term rentals, arguing that the proliferation of rentals in the tourism-dependent town has led to unaffordable housing costs and a dwindling number of housing options for locals.

The chamber presented a petition on the issue to Marfa City Council members at a Tuesday meeting where residents and people with ties to the town offered their thoughts on the idea.

Some, like Marfa native Yasmine Guevara, who works at a local arts foundation, spoke in favor of the chamber’s effort and urged officials to find “some type of solution.”

“I love this town,” she told council members. “I want to live in this town, I want to be able to afford a home. I have family members that would like to be a homeowner too one day, but they can’t because prices are so high.”

Others at Tuesday’s meeting, like local homeowner and Airbnb operator Nina Dietzel, cautioned council members against imposing any new rules that might stifle the short-term rental industry, which Dietzel argued creates jobs.

“From managing the rentals, to fixing them, cleaning, gardening, you name it, resourceful and hard-working locals have created an entire micro-economy around the different skill sets needed to keep those STRs running,” she said.

A historic home in Marfa being renovated for use as a short-term rental.
Travis Bubenik
Marfa Public Radio
A historic home in Marfa being renovated for use as a short-term rental.

The chamber of commerce has not proposed any specific regulations, and city council members were notably silent on the issue at Tuesday’s meeting. After hearing public comments, none of the council members offered a response.

Still, the conversation prompted by the chamber’s petition pointed to housing access and affordability being a subject of real tension in the town of about 1,800 people, where 200 local properties are currently active as short-term rentals, according to data from analytics firm AirDNA.

“I’ve heard that most of the managers treat local employees like crap,” Guevara said at the meeting. “People that are my family members, my friends.”

She then turned to face some of the property owners in the room.

“Just because you have your Airbnbs, you just treat them like they’re trash, and that’s not fair,” she said.

Some local property owners say that despite the often-discussed need for more housing options in town, they’ve had a hard time filling their own long-term rentals.

Marfa real estate agent Melissa Bent told council members she has long-term rentals available, but “no one is booking.”

“These are under $2,000, they’re multiple bedrooms, bathrooms” she said. “They might not be in the best shape, but they’re very decent.”

Jacqueline Hernandez, a local teacher who grew up in Marfa, said she’s “not against Airbnbs,” but urged council members to think about who the housing market is catering to.

“The long-term rental prices are not realistic for the working people in Marfa,” she said. “We can’t buy million-dollar houses out here, let’s be realistic.”

Marfa is of course not alone in feeling the varied impacts from an explosion in short-term rentals in recent years.

In other rural tourist towns, local officials have worked to incentivize homeowners making their properties available as long-term rentals as short-term rental management companies scoop up a larger share of available properties. Officials in Austin have struggled to deal with a rise in short-term rentals that essentially operate as mini-hotels in the middle of residential neighborhoods. At least one popular neighborhood in Houston is already bracing for the prospect of a similar trend.

And even in Marfa, local officials have attempted to tackle the issue in fits and starts. An affordable housing committee of the city council began exploring solutions in 2019, but the effort ultimately fizzled.

As the Big Bend Sentinel has reported, council members have pledged to begin enforcing the city’s existing short-term rental ordinance, which was updated late last year to include new fees and reporting requirements. But Marfa Chamber of Commerce President Abby Boyd said she would like to see the city council explore a broader range of regulatory avenues for managing things like how many short-term rentals the city has and where they’re located.

“We need to look at zoning, we need to look at the requirements for renting a house long-term compared to the requirements of renting a house short-term,” she said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, some speakers pushed council members to consider the nuances of who exactly owns short-term rentals in Marfa and why.

George Miles, who lives in the Houston area, told council members about the work he’s done with his wife to renovate a historic pink home on the east side of town that Miles said was built in 1917.

The home, he said, has been in his wife’s family for decades until her mother’s passing in recent years. Miles said the couple is now planning to turn the home into a short-term rental, in part so they can afford to eventually retire there.

“We can’t afford to keep the house without turning it into a short-term rental with the ever-rising property taxes,” he said. “We’re very concerned about how this petition would directly affect our ability to keep this house.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.