As city shutters short-term rentals, Airbnb listings remain

MARFA — The City of Marfa released a supplement to their local disaster declaration last Thursday, April 2, which, among other things, further regulates short- and long-term rentals within the city. Long-term rentals (longer than 30 days) can now only be advertised to essential personnel or to local residents of the tri-county area “in response to ‘Escape to Marfa during COVID-19’ advertisements by rental property owners,” the order says.

The original order, released on March 18, announced that “hotels, motels and short-term rentals will close to the public” as of Monday, March 23 — a change that would stay in place for at least seven days. City council then continued that order during a city meeting, keeping rentals closed unless needed by emergency workers, National Guard, active duty military or a handful of other exceptions.

Following the first announcement of closures, some short-term rentals pivoted to long-term in order to remain open, advertising in various places across Facebook, Airbnb and Craigslist. Local Airbnb and long-term rental location, The Lincoln, listed their short-term-turned-long-term rentals on Austin Craigslist on March 20. Entitled “ESCAPE TO MARFA!” the ad listed multiple units ranging from $1,400 to $2,500, and said it was “inviting those looking to get out of the big city to consider moving to Marfa for a while.” It remained listed until the day the city issued the supplemental order, April 2.

“Since the mandates started coming out, we have followed all of the city guidelines,” says Clark Childers, co-owner of The Lincoln. “We, like the restaurants, modified our business plan to figure out a way to survive while still keeping the community’s safety in mind,” Childers says of his and co-owner Adam Walton’s decisions with The Lincoln.

Through the supplemental order, the city is able to request a copy of a lease, a tenant’s driver’s license and documentation of local resident status or proof of essential personnel/business status. Failure to produce proof is punishable with an up to $1,000 fine or a jail term that does not exceed 180 days.

Any advertisements of long- or short-term rentals within the city are required to contain specific language “in all caps” that state that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the property is only permitted to be rented to permanent residents of the tri-county area and to essential personnel.

Marfa City Manager John Washburn says it has been “surprisingly difficult” to stop the steady stream of out-of-towners arriving in Marfa. The original order halted the influx from spring break, and the supplemental order is aimed at stopping the big city escapees from arriving in town to ride out the virus. While Marfa currently has no confirmed cases of coronavirus, city officials worry that escapees might overburden the already limited healthcare system if COVID-19 hits the Big Bend region.

But enforcing the ordinances is “problematic at best,” according to Washburn. The city has struggled to identify “hosts,” those who operate each Airbnb listing. The city knows who pays their short-term rental taxes, but matching up those names to listings on sites like Airbnb can be a difficult task.

How might the city determine who is still listing their rental in violation of the ordinance? Washburn says the city is proceeding with caution, but one option he’s open to is to eventually file the motions in court in San Francisco and fining companies $1,000 a day, along with the hosts. “That’s a larger question that may be answered in the future, that we’d have to engage outside counsel for. I’m not above poking the bear,” he says. “If it’s going to save lives and protect the people in the community, it’s something I’m willing to entertain and recommend.”

Getting in contact with Airbnb has been difficult, he mentions. “We did finally find the press email and we sent the order to the press email and they responded, but we still continue to see listings, so that’s perplexing to me, why Airbnb didn’t shut it down completely.”

“They have the capability to prevent their hosts from completing listings in our jurisdiction. They’re aware of it,” Washburn says. “But what do we have that’s truly a hammer to stop them?”

On Airbnb’s Help Center, the company lists “travel restrictions and advisories in Texas,” which hosts one link: a file of Marfa’s first order to close short-term rentals, but not the supplement that extends it beyond March 30.

Julie Bernal runs an Airbnb in town. She says she’s lucky to still have other work, but notes that the short-term rental is her primary source of income, so she’s felt the squeeze. On March 24, Bernal received an email from Airbnb explaining that a city order had halted short-term rentals.

“The order mandates short-term rental operators to cancel all existing reservations, and refrain from accepting new guests or making new reservations for stays for the booking period commencing on March 23 2020, through March 30 2020,” the email read.

It continued, “We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience, but appreciate your support in ensuring compliance with these regulations as local governments address COVID-19 public health concerns.”

Guests with reservations from March 23 to March 30 received similar notification emails from the company. Hosts and guests would initiate the cancellations, but typical fees were waived and cancellations would not impact Airbnb hosts’ ratings. The short-term rental company provided links to the initial order and directed users to the City of Marfa website.

On April 2, Bernal was contacted again, this time by a prospective short-term renter. Airbnb lifted its restrictions at the end of the March 30 order, and Bernal had not further blocked out her rental dates on the site.

Bernal manually rejected the rental request, but also explained to the renter why she chose to turn down the booking.

“I wanted her to understand why – it’s important!” Bernal wrote in a Facebook post explaining the incident. “I told her that in our small town that’s literally 200 miles away from the nearest large hospital, our resources are very limited. If we are lucky enough to have no cases of COVID-19 at the moment (has not been determined), then we need to keep it this way. Anyone coming in from a city like Austin or New York could do real damage to us and the seniors that we all know and love,” she wrote.

“An emergency helicopter flight to El Paso or Midland for urgent care would instantly bankrupt any of us. This goes for anyone who has been coming out here for years…in this situation, living here permanently means something different. As tempting as it may be to wait this out in a more remote place, everyone needs to just stay where they are.”

Bernal says she was surprised that people were still considering taking trips. “I had another person actually book the space the next day – that’s when I realized I needed to block out the calendar on Airbnb,” she says.

At press time, three listings were available for this weekend and four for the following. At this time, none of the available rentals on Airbnb have the disclosure text that the city order requires. Airbnb did not return a request for comment about their decision to leave listings up after March 30.