With high costs and low opportunities, Presidio County population declines, according to new study

PRESIDIO COUNTY — Eliza Barton loves living in Marfa. A Montessori school teacher at Marfa Elementary, she was able to find limited teacher housing near the school in 2018.

But when Barton and her husband started looking for more permanent options, they soon decided they couldn’t afford to live in Marfa. They would find a place that seemed within their price range — and then she says someone else would put down a half-million dollar bid.

Eventually, the Bartons decided to look elsewhere. They bought a property in Fort Davis and started building a house.

They’ll have more land and more space, but, Barton says, “It’s sad we’re forced to go outside of town.”

Barton isn’t alone. Even as the Lone Star State’s population booms, Presidio County is shrinking, as residents flee for better job opportunities or a lower cost of living, according to an analysis released last month by the Texas Demographic Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Between 2010 and 2018, Presidio County’s only two cities — Marfa and Presidio — both earned spots on a list of the top-ten Texas cities with the biggest percentage declines in population. Marfa had the fourth-largest percentage drop in population, with a 14.1 percent decline from 1,981 residents in 2010 to 1,702 in 2018. Presidio had the 8th largest, with a 10.6 percent decrease from 4,426 people in 2010 to 3,957 in 2018, according to the analysis.

Presidio also earned a spot (ninth-place) on a list of the Texas cities that lost the greatest total number of residents in that time frame. The border city shedded an estimated 469 people, researchers said.

Meanwhile, Texas itself is growing. Lloyd Potter, a state demographer and director of the Texas Demographic Center, highlighted some of the trends affecting the Lone Star population, which has increased by around 4 million people since 2010. Texas has a relatively young population, he said, and as a result births outpace deaths. Immigration (both interstate and international) also accounts for about 50 percent of growth.

Still, the picture is different in rural and urban areas, Potter said. While cities like Austin and Houston are booming, 93 of Texas’s 254 counties lost population last decade. All of them were rural, and many were in West Texas and the panhandle.

That’s because older residents of rural and sparsely-populated areas are in their “high death” years and sometimes move to urban centers where they can get speciality care, he said. Meanwhile, younger residents are moving to cities for jobs and education.

“If you were born in a more rural part of the state and you want to work or do post-secondary school, you have to move to an urban area,” he said. Young people “don’t necessarily go back [to their hometowns] unless they have some opportunity there.” Instead, many find opportunities elsewhere, like in the Permian Basin.

Marfa has other factors working against it. When asked why Marfa might be losing population, Marfa native and city councilmember Irma Salgado didn’t mince words.

“The cost of living due to housing,” she said.

Between 2010 and 2017 — the last year for which public census data is available — the median home value in Marfa rose from $80,600 to $107,9000, and the median rent rose from $335 to $706. (Zillow, the online real-estate company, now shows a median listing price of $335,000.) During the same time period, the number of owner-occupied units plummeted from 728 to 457, according to Census data.

Marfa’s population has been shrinking for years or even decades, said Raul Lara, another Marfa native and city councilmember. “This is nothing new to us,” he said. “It’s a big concern.”

Even back in the 1980s, when Lara served on the school board, he remembers struggling to hire and retain teachers. “One of our biggest problems was housing,” he said.

Lara worries that Marfa is becoming too “ritzy.” And he fears that local children will decide it doesn’t make sense to stay in Marfa once they reach adulthood — a trend he says is already being borne out.

“The younger generations — once their parents pass on — they just sell the house and go on their way,” he said.

Natalie Melendez, another city councilmember, moved here from California around seven years ago and now chairs Marfa’s affordable housing advisory committee.

Melendez says she got “really lucky” with housing and was able to find a casita with affordable rent. But she says too many Marfans struggle to find long-term housing, as short-term and vacation rentals like AirBnb now take up more of the market.

“The profits are a lot higher if you’re doing short-term rental rather than long-term rental,” she said. And she saw it as a vicious cycle: Marfans needed the income from short-term rentals “because there’s not a lot of job opportunities.” (The city is currently running an affordable housing survey to learn more about the living situations of Marfans, which is available here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HTYHSXT.)

Host Compliance, a company that helps local governments manage and regulate short-term and vacation rentals, last month briefed Marfa city council on these challenges. Almost 150 city rental units were on the short-term market in 2019 — a 40 percent increase from 2018, the company said.

“Short-term rentals can displace long term tenants, alter the neighborhood character and raise legitimate parking, noise, safety, trash and fairness concerns,” a presentation from the company says. In general, the company estimates only about 10 percent of short-term renters everywhere fully comply with regulations and taxes.

With the 2020 Census just months away, fewer residents will mean less money and less political power for Presidio County. The census not only determines voting districts: It also helps decide how much federal and state grant money is dedicated to local projects.

It’s a reality that Bob Schwab, a Marfa resident and grant writer for the County of El Paso Public Works Department, knows all too well.

“There’s this sense that Marfa is full of people,” he said. “But if you look at the counts of structures that are now in an overnight rental situation, we’re becoming a city of hotel rooms.”

In the City of Presidio, the situation is different. There, the median home value is $46,500 and more than half of homes are “owner-occupied,” according to census data from 2017. And yet the city’s population is still shrinking fast, according to the analysis.

But Presidio has always been hard to count, with many residents splitting time in Ojinaga and beyond. After the Trump administration floated the idea of adding a citizenship question to the census, some argue it’s gotten harder to count than ever.

“There’s gonna be people who are hesitant to want to get counted,” Mayor John Ferguson said at a city council meeting in October, as city leaders advocated for a “complete count committee.” City administrator Joe Portillo estimated at the meeting that the city would lose $1,600 for each resident not counted.

In 2012, a Presidio city consultant argued that the 2010 Census had undercounted the border city. Using active water connections, the consultant put the city’s population at over 5,000 — not 4,426 as the Census had estimated.

“We’re always undercounted,” Brad Newton, executive director of the Presidio Municipal Development District said in an interview Tuesday. “The state demographers in San Antonio, they’ve never set foot in Presidio.” He pegged Presidio’s population at closer to 5,500, using that same water-connection rubric.

Still, Newton conceded that much of the working population has moved elsewhere — especially to the Permian Basin — for higher-paying jobs. They spend time in Presidio, but not 51 percent of their time — the cutoff necessary to be considered a resident, according to Census rules.

“There’s a lot of people that live out of town,” Newton said, “but they still call Presidio home.”

Mayor John Ferguson agrees that the Permian Basin is drawing away residents. “A lot of the people have been lured away to some really well-paying jobs in the oil fields,” he said. “All you have to do is stand on the sidewalk during a holiday period such as Christmas, and look at all the expensive pickups that are towing trailers with four-wheeler toys and dune-buggy type vehicles.”