Short-term rental owners push back as council workshops new ordinance

MARFA — Marfa city officials want a new short-term rental ordinance — but why? At two public workshops over the past week, including a heated one on Tuesday evening, residents and officials asked that very question.

Marfa officials had numerous reasons to consider more regulations on Airbnbs, from shrinking housing stock and unpaid hotel occupancy taxes to short-term rental owners who flaunted temporary restrictions at the start of the coronavirus crisis. But for the residents who turned out for the workshops, the answer instead came down to quality of life issues, like vacation renters who party into the night and otherwise disrupt the feel of quiet Marfa neighborhoods.

As for the second workshop on Tuesday, it was almost exclusively attended by people who profit from Airbnbs, either as property owners or managers. That group argued Marfa city leaders should impose few, if any, new restrictions.

Those residents defended Airbnbs and other short-term rentals and cautioned the city against overregulating the industry. They pointed out that Marfa’s art galleries, restaurants and other tourist-oriented businesses depend on “heads in beds,” as Clark Childers, a co-owner at the Lincoln Marfa, put it.

Childers said it was a “really bad time to even be considering voting on this subject,” citing the fact that short-term rental owners were already hurting during the ongoing coronavirus crisis and after the temporary shutdowns earlier this year. Meghan Gerety, who said she’s owned and managed Airbnbs for 15 years, said she’s “never had a single complaint from neighbors or any problems from guests” — though she did say that “an ordinance would be helpful.”

Hamilton Fish, another Airbnb owner, cautioned city council against “demonizing the short-term renter” in a “potentially authoritarian manner” and stressed that permanent Marfa residents also created quality of life issues. Robert Spiegel, another Airbnb owner, questioned why Marfa officials would try to regulate noise at Airbnbs in particular rather than “creating a noise ordinance with some actual teeth on it.”

But noise issues weren’t the only concerns that led up to these workshops on a short-term rental ordinance. Officials had previously raised concerns about residents — including Marfa natives — who could no longer afford to live in town. They also worried about black-market vacation rentals.

In December, Marfa City Council signed a contract with Host Compliance, a company dedicated to helping local governments regulate short-term rentals. As vacation rentals have swallowed up more housing stock, local officials across the country and world have increasingly turned to companies like Host Compliance to get a handle on these issues.

In Marfa, Host Compliance told city officials that in 2019, around 150 of the city’s rental units were Airbnbs — a 40% increase from 2018, or about 14% of Marfa’s housing stock, according to census figures. (Those numbers have fallen by around half during the coronavirus crisis, city officials said at Tuesday’s meeting, with closer to 80 short term rental units now operating.)

“Short-term rentals can displace long term tenants, alter the neighborhood character and raise legitimate parking, noise, safety, trash and fairness concerns,” the company told Marfa officials in a presentation in December. It estimated that in general, only about 10% of short-term rental owners (not just in Marfa, but everywhere) fully comply with regulations and taxes.

All of this was troubling to city officials, who already worried that some short-term rentals weren’t registering with the city or paying hotel occupancy taxes. Though it’s hard to say how long Marfans have debated vacation rentals — Airbnb, after all, started back in 2008 — that presentation last year marks one clear starting point in this current debate over a short-term rental ordinance.

That same month, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, the Texas Demographic Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio released a study. It offered alarming statistics for Marfa: out of all Texas cities, Marfa had seen the fourth-largest drop in population since 2010, plummeting more than 14% from 1,981 in 2010 to 1,702 in 2018.

In a story from January on that study, The Big Bend Sentinel interviewed a Marfa public school teacher who relocated to Fort Davis after deciding Marfa real estate was unaffordable. We also interviewed public officials and experts who warned of the effects of falling population, from less voting power to fewer federal and state grant dollars.

Irma Salgado, a city council member, said “the cost of living due to housing” was a major factor driving permanent residents from Marfa. Raul Lara, another council member, likewise acknowledged that housing costs were “a big concern.”

Natalie Melendez, another council member, worried Marfa homeowners were increasingly caught in a vicious cycle in which they had to run pricey short-term rentals in order to afford their own living expenses. And Bob Schwab, a Marfa resident and grant writer with the El Paso Public Works Department, said that while “there’s this sense that Marfa is full of people,” Marfa was actually “becoming a city of hotel rooms.”

At workshops over the past week, Schwab was one of the few people to express concerns about short-term rentals rather than concerns about regulating them. Schwab said he experienced regular nuisances from Airbnb neighbors, including an unattended fire, and said he worried the issues had “affected our property value.” His neighbor, Diane Birdsall, showed up to the second meeting, where she said Schwab was mischaracterizing the size of the fire and the noisiness of her guests.

Debates over Airbnbs fell by the wayside in March and April, as city officials scrambled to respond to the coronavirus crisis. But as city officials imposed temporary bans on hotels and short-term rentals, they came up again.

In April, The Big Bend Sentinel found multiple examples of Airbnb listings that were still up despite the ban. We also reported on one company — Fort Worth-based Marfa Property Group, LLC — that had continued to accept bookings.

Marfa’s proposed ordinance is loosely based on San Antonio’s, which breaks Airbnbs into two types: Type 1, which are lived in by the property owner as a primary residence, with extra rooms rented out; and Type 2, in which the owner uses the residence as a vacation rental without living in it or renting it to long-term tenants.

San Antonio divided Airbnbs that way, one San Antonio council member explained at the time, because Type 2 rentals “adversely affect the nature and character of residential neighborhoods” and reduce “the availability of affordable, working-family housing.” They set density caps preventing more than one-eighth of a city block from becoming Type 2 Airbnbs.

Those density rules were gone from Marfa’s proposed ordinance by the time of Tuesday’s meeting, as city council instead considered using other tools (like special-use permits) to regulate new Airbnbs. But Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda questioned whether the city should even be trying to limit new vacation rentals. Many residents in attendance agreed.

Affordable housing concerns were barely discussed. On Tuesday, they came up only once, when The Big Bend Sentinel asked about them during the public comment period.

Lauren Meader Fowlkes, a realtor and rentals manager, responded that the conversation over Marfa’s short-term rental ordinance had “nothing to do with affordable housing.”

“Most of these houses have never been long-term rentals because the owners use them,” she said. Instead, she argued, many were second homes — and if owners couldn’t use them as vacation rentals, they would just keep them vacant instead.

After around two hours, and after combing through just around half of Marfa’s proposed ordinance, city council decided to call it quits for the night. But the discussions are far from over. The city will have its next workshop on the short term rental ordinance on Thursday, October 22, at 6 p.m. with an agenda and Zoom login available at www.cityofmarfa.com.


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