© 2024 Marfa Public Radio
A 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Lobby Hours: Monday - Friday 10 AM to Noon & 1 PM to 4 PM
For general inquiries: (432) 729-4578
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Proposed Marfa zoning changes would formalize live-work housing rules, possibly lead to new housing options

A neighborhood in Marfa, Texas pictured in April 2024.
Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
A neighborhood in Marfa, Texas pictured in April 2024.

Marfa’s city council is considering changes to local zoning rules that could lead to more live-work housing options and open up industrial properties for residential use, a small step toward addressing the popular tourist town’s persistent lack of housing, affordable or otherwise.

Councilmembers have scheduled two public hearings on April 22 and 25 to discuss the proposed changes and gather feedback from residents.

The effort stems from a September 2023 report by the council’s Planning and Zoning Commission, which spent months looking at the city’s existing zoning ordinance.

The new rules, if approved by council members, would allow for housing on industrially zoned properties and would let commercially zoned properties be used as a business and residence at the same time. The changes would mostly impact buildings in Marfa’s downtown business area and parts of town along the railroad tracks, where some buildings have in fact already been used for housing.

“The example that we keep hearing is the apartment above the shop, the apartment above the gallery, this is a long-standing tradition in the way that people in Marfa live,” said Councilmember Travis Acreman, noting that the current rules don’t actually allow that.

“It would also, I think, really encourage people who own these properties in the downtown district to look for ways to incorporate housing” into those buildings, he said.

Acreman said while he does have some lingering concerns about specific wording in the proposed zoning changes, the city’s current draft version of the new ordinance is in better shape than it was at the end of 2023.

Stephen “Chick” Rabourn, a local architect and Planning and Zoning Commission member, said the city has repeatedly been approached about the prospect of using commercial and industrial buildings for residences.

“That’s something you see across the country in small towns: the industrial properties aren’t industrial anymore, and what happens is they fall derelict to old zoning ordinances,” he said.

Rabourn said the proposed changes are meant to “unlock some of the barriers” that keep people from being able to live and work in the town.

Officials are also considering zoning changes that would loosen rules on “home occupations” - instances where people offer services like tailoring and babysitting out of their home - and update lot size and setback requirements for construction so that property owners don’t have to get as many special permit exceptions for building projects.

The new zoning ordinance proposal is not the city’s first stab at addressing the town’s lack of housing, but it has maintained steam where other initiatives - including an affordable housing committee that advised council members on the issue in recent years - fizzled.

Still, in a town with fewer than 1,800 residents and more than 200 short-term rentals on the market - according to the data analytics firm AirDNA - some have urged local officials to focus more on stricter regulations on rentals.

In recent years, Texas cities that have attempted to crack down on short-term rentals have been met with pushback from rental owners, the lodging industry and lawmakers. Last year, the GOP-controlled Texas legislature considered a bill that would allow the state to override any local-level regulations on rentals, and stricter rules on short-term rentals in cities like Austin and Dallas have been blocked by the courts.

Acreman said that given those broader fights, the city’s focus on zoning makes more sense for now.

“Let’s let the big players fight this out,” he said. “But in the meantime, I’m more focused on the carrot - the incentive - for establishing more housing than I am the stick of anything punitive, especially considering how important tourism is to our community and for the livelihoods of so many people.”

Though officials say Marfa’s proposed zoning changes could open up or encourage new housing options, it remains possible that any new housing that results could also be used as a short-term rental.

One limitation to housing in Marfa that the current proposals don’t address is the city’s relative lack of land zoned for multi-family use, where apartments or duplexes can be located.

“There’s so little opportunity for someone who is interested in creating a project to actually do it within city limits,” Acreman said. “Maybe a mid-to-long-term approach that we could consider at the city is revisiting the map and seeing if it’s really appropriate for something like 90% of the map to be single-family suburban style.”

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