Affordable housing committee meets; developer initiates small housing project

A architectural rendering of the spaces at The Presidio condominiums that include two courtyards. More information about the project is available on the website:

MARFA – City officials, citizens, and developers are grasping for solutions as Marfa’s housing costs have climbed steadily over the past decade. Real estate prices, rental prices, short-term rentals, and property taxes have grown, and the ranchland-locked town is considering options to open up units for Marfa locals.

City council assembled a committee to investigate affordable housing options, who this week considered limiting short-term rentals like Airbnb, and heard options for the city to build their own publicly-owned houses. Meanwhile, developers are adding to the city’s housing stock, and citizens are debating what true affordability means for Marfa’s residents.

“Affordable” housing, according to the United States government, is any housing with a price 30% or less than one’s income. With a median family income of $44,583, a federally “affordable” rental or mortgage for the median Marfa family would be defined at $1,115 a month. Half of all Marfa families sit somewhere below that number.

While “affordable housing” is solely based on 30% of anyone’s income, Section 8 housing is specifically for low- to moderate-income renters, where the government partially pays rent on privately owned units.

The city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee began meeting this March, and Councilmember Natalie Melendez, who chairs the committee emphasized that the committee is currently focused on gathering information and asking questions. Melendez said one priority was “trying to at least retain some of the local, true local, original community so they don’t feel like they’re being pushed out of where they’ve grown up and where they’ve planted roots.” As gentrification spreads across larger US cities, it now hits close to home, as long time locals are priced out of their homes by unmanageable property tax growth.

This Tuesday, the committee heard presentations about two potential housing relief solutions—quelling the ballooning number of short-term rental properties and building new housing units on existing city property.

Outgoing City Manager Terry Brechtel laid out a path for the city council to hear strategies to limit short-term rentals in Marfa, which now number about 100 units. Short-term rentals are usually Airbnbs, VRBOs, and other nightly rental units that otherwise would be used as long-term rentals or lie vacant.

“We’ve been talking about a stand-alone ordinance that would restrict the use of short term rentals specifically,” Brechtel explained. To implement a cap on short-term rentals, the city could cite health and safety concerns that come with short-term rentals, and emphasize that the short-term rentals can negatively impact the integrity of a residential neighborhood.

If the city notifies Marfa residents of a coming restriction on short-term rentals and provides time for them to apply, they may not face legal backlash from short-term rental owners or companies such as Airbnb.

The housing committee also considered a new proposition from Councilmember Buck Johnston, who located five potential properties owned by the city that are viable lots to build city-owned housing units. The council-member hopes this option could increase publicly owned housing stock by 20 to 30 units, and plans to advocate the units be constructed with adobe. It would be up to council to hear proposals and take action to move forward with clearing the lots’ titles and making construction decisions.

Meanwhile, developer Robert Summers’ “The Presidio” project has sparked a heated discussion on housing supply. Summers will break ground on six condo units in south Marfa next month, and expects them to be move-in ready by 2020. An additional six units are on the way soon after. Each condo is 1,000 square feet, with 600 additional square feet of private courtyards.

Summers said the project is influenced by Spanish colonial style, and calls the design “colonial space age revival.” Summers explained, We took it kind of forward, and it looks kind of ‘70s,” citing Mexican Modernist Luis Barragán as inspiration.

Detractors of the project have taken to social media, expressing that the $200,000 price is not affordable to many Marfa residents, whose income floats at or just above minimum wage, and that it will only attract more part-time owners from Los Angeles, New York or Austin.

In data provided by the developer, Summers pegs the monthly cost per unit at $1,307, just above the “affordable” $1,115 for the median Marfa income. The first six units of The Presidio have been reserved by three current permanent Marfa residents, and five of the six individuals who have reserved spots intend to owner-occupy, with one considering renting out the unit long-term.

Summers also provided his own calculations, saying The Presidio is affordable “to families that make only 17% more than the median/middle Marfa family income.” The median price for a house on the market in Marfa today is $340,000, with only three properties currently priced below $200,000. Of the 42 units currently on the market, the average price is $438,500.

Though The Presidio is lower than the cost of most homes in Marfa, the price point still remains out of reach for many locals wanting to live, work, send their children to school, and spend their income in the local Marfa economy.

Summers himself is no stranger to affordable housing, since his last project in East Austin is going to create 300 low-income affordable units. But he emphasizes that projects that are truly low-income require partnerships and funding that Marfa may not be able to access.

A competitive tax credit program allows access to funding, but can be restricted if the credit is already being used in the Marfa area. The Marfa Villa apartments are low-income tax credit funded, so city officials and developers like Summers are unsure whether funding is available there. “We have a housing authority, and we have public land owned by the city, so some of the elements are there. But the chunk that pays for truly low-income housing may not be there,” Summers laments.

Still, the city can control some housing options. Summers explains, “If that’s not available to us, then you have to do it in incremental ways like the city’s deal with Clark Childers, one at a time, to build some fabric of affordability.”

Childers owns the 105 Lincoln apartments with his partner, and the building houses short-term and longterm renters. At a recent council meeting, Childers hoped to have the property next-door to 105 Lincoln rezoned to multi-family, so he could expand his rental business. At the behest of Councilmember Johnston, Childers agreed to reserve one new unit as affordable housing with a locked in rent price, in exchange for the re-zoning. Summers lauded the move by Childers and Johnston, saying, “I think it’s forward thinking and progressive, and they’re doing it for the right reasons; they set a terrific example.”

Summers himself says if he “can survive” The Presidio project, he hopes to work with the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee on true low-income affordable housing of 80% median family income or less. “The affordability issue in Marfa is not unique to Marfa, or Texas, or any other state. It’s a national plague of lack of affordability. We’re seeing it happen here, and the answers are really hard.”