At latest workshop, Marfa focuses on details of short-term rental ordinance

MARFA — Marfa city leaders are sparing no details as they comb through their proposed short-term rental ordinance. City council held the third workshop on this topic last week, clocking in at about two hours.

Last week’s meeting was almost exclusively attended by people who profit from short-term rentals, either as property owners or managers, and those residents once again pushed back on new regulations and warned they could have unforeseen impacts on Marfa’s tourist economy.

Last week, though, city officials also heard the perspective of a long-term renter. That resident, Claire Lindsay-McGinn, said she’d come to support new rules on vacation rentals.

“I make my money in town, and finding a rental here is extremely hard,” she said at the meeting. “There’s a lack of housing in this town for people who live and work here.”

In a follow-up interview this week, Lindsay-McGinn, who is a graphic designer at The Big Bend Sentinel and a small-business owner, said she attended the meeting to make sure that “renters have a voice” in discussions of the new ordinance.

“I went [to the meeting] because affordable housing is hard to find in Marfa,” she said. “I don’t know all the nuts and bolts of housing law, but I do know that being a renter here is really challenging. Short-term rentals, to me, are part of the problem.”

A lot about this new ordinance is still to-be-determined — but with hours of public discussions, a few hot-button issues have come up. As Marfa City Council gets ready for its next meeting on this issue tonight, Thursday, Oct. 29, here are some aspects of the proposed ordinance that have proven particularly contentious.

The why

Even three meetings in, some local officials and residents are still unsure why exactly Marfa wants or needs a short-term rental ordinance. “What do we want out of this?” Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda asked at one point. “What do we hope for the results to be?”

As The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, Marfa city leaders have plenty of reasons to want new rules on short-term rentals, from rising housing prices and unpaid HOT fees to unregistered rentals who flouted temporary bans during the start of the coronavirus crisis. But these workshops have left that question a little ambiguous. At the meetings, officials and residents have often focused on quality-of-life issues like noise complaints for which Marfa already has ordinances.

At this most recent meeting, some city leaders were clear about the stakes. Mayor Manny Baeza pointed out that Marfa’s population was falling. Councilmember Buck Johnston noted that voter registration was down. “We have less voters,” she said.

Councilmember Natalie Melendez, meanwhile, said Marfa was becoming “a town that’s strictly comprised of part-time residents and tourists.”

“This is something that every city that has tourism and has a high number of Airbnbs is grappling with,” Melendez said. “This is not unique to our town.”

Ben-Yehuda told the council he shared those concerns. Businesses on Highland Street in the middle of Marfa, he noted, were increasingly catering to tourists rather than residents. But between quality-of-life concerns, housing costs and permitting, Ben-Yehuda thought city council was trying to address too many problems at once. “I don’t want everything to get grouped into this short-term rental ordinance,” he said.

Melendez disagreed. “You can’t think of these things as being separate,” she said. “They’re all intertwined.” Besides, as she saw it, the new proposed rules for vacation rentals in Marfa were “pretty light” and “not aggressive in terms of regulation.”

“Type 2” rentals

San Antonio’s short-term rental ordinance, on which Marfa’s is loosely based, makes a distinction between different kinds of short-term rentals. “Type 1” rentals are owned by people who live on the property but rent out spare rooms. “Type 2” rentals are effectively a hotel business, with property owners renting out a whole house and living elsewhere, even in a different city or state.

San Antonio city officials were particularly concerned with Type 2 rentals and imposed extra regulations on them, including a limitation on the proportion of a city block they can take up. Marfa city leaders are considering adopting a similar approach, including imposing that same block limit. Unsurprisingly, that’s proving contentious for a few reasons.

First, many owners of short-term rentals in Marfa do not live in the same property they rent out to vacationers. For these people, any new limits on Type 2 rentals could pose a threat to their bottom line.

Throughout these workshops, city officials have stressed that they plan to grandfather existing rentals, allowing them to bypass certain regulations like density caps that would apply to later vacation rentals in the city. But it would probably be harder to open new ones. In the Zoom’s chat box, some rental owners wondered whether they would be allowed to continue operating a Type 2 rental if — for any reason — their permitting lapsed and there was already a legal limit.

Such rules would also set a theoretical limit on how many Type 2 rentals could exist in Marfa. If every block reached its maximum limit of Type 2 rentals, no one else would be able to open one.

Robert Spiegel, a short-term rental owner, called it “very dangerous “and “a slippery slope” to set up rules like this without first considering the impacts on Marfa’s tourist economy. In a big city like San Antonio, he noted, there could be more than 20 houses on a single block. Marfa blocks were smaller.

“I just really, really want this to be something that helps rather than hinders,” Spiegel said.

Last but not least, there’s still confusion on how exactly Marfa will define Type 1 and Type 2. Take, for example, a resident who claims a homestead exemption on their Marfa home but rents it out for up to half the year. Which type would they be? It isn’t clear, though city officials appeared to lean towards Type 1 at the last meeting.

Making things more confusing, Marfa city officials have so far defined these rental types in two separate ways.  In discussions, they frequently use the same distinctions as San Antonio, describing Type 1 as owner-occupied and Type 2 as not.

The written ordinance uses other distinctions, with Type 2 rentals in R-1 (single family) zoned areas and Type 1 in other zones, like commercial districts. But those two definitions are inconsistent, and at press time, city officials were still figuring out which definition to use.

Local contacts

According to the current draft of the ordinance, all short-term rentals must have a local contact person who “can be on-site” within 30 minutes “to handle all guest issues.” At least judging by the Zoom text chat, this is one of the more controversial aspects of the current ordinance, with many people describing this rule as an unfair burden on short-term rental owners.

One rental owner, Lorna Leedy, suggested the city officials instead require people to “respond in a reasonable amount of time.” A rental manager, Ylana Frydman, said “accountability to guests” is regulated by platforms like Airbnb and “does not need to be regulated by the city.”

“In 16 years I’ve never needed to be at a rental in one hour,” Spiegel wrote. “Never! This is ABSURD!”

Councilmember Johnston, who herself runs a short-term rental, said she already felt obligated to respond quickly to any guest concerns. But she thought the city should require contacts to respond quickly rather than be on-site.

“I don’t feel comfortable going on-site when there are guests,” she said. “It’s their private space.”

Privacy was another concern. If the local contact person had to respond to complaints by neighboring residents (and not just guests), that would likely require the city to publicize those phone numbers. Councilmember Ben-Yehuda said he wasn’t comfortable with that.

“We’re spending money on Host Compliance to field complaints,” he noted. “That was one of their pitches.” Elise Acosta, a representative for the company who was on the call, agreed Host Compliance could handle those complaints. She suggested city leaders publicize the Host Compliance number as a “community resource,” which she said would provide two benefits: Not only could the company handle some of the complaints, but it would also create a streamlined database of complaints that city leaders could then take action on.

The next meeting on this ordinance is the regular council meeting today, Thursday, Oct. 29, at 6 p.m. Zoom details are available on the City of Marfa website.

Disclosure: As mentioned above, Claire Lindsay-McGinn is an employee of The Big Bend Sentinel. Her opinions on this issue did not influence our reporting.