Population decline in Presidio County met with resistance in Presidio, resignation in Marfa

PRESIDIO COUNTY – The Census Bureau reported population drops across Presidio County over the past ten years, and while Marfa’s mayor believed the declining numbers were accurate, chalking it up to gentrification in the area, city of Presidio officials are doubting the count, questioning whether the census missed hundreds of their residents.

The U.S. Census takes place every ten years, and in 2010, Presidio County had 7,818 residents counted. Just ten years later, in 2020, the number of Presidio County residents counted fell to 6,131, a 21.6% decline.

While Texas grew, gaining two new U.S. House representatives, based on state-level data released earlier this year, its rural areas did not keep up. The census has now delivered new data broken down on the levels of counties and census tracts, giving more insight into how this region of Texas has shifted in the past ten years.

The trend of rural populations declining is common across the United States and Texas, but even among Texas’ 254 counties, Presidio County had the sixth steepest decline in population.

The census divided Presidio County into tracts in north and south county, and Census tract 9501, which includes Marfa, Ruidosa, Candelaria and other unincorporated parts of north county, was counted at 2,634 in 2010. It dropped by 13.1% in the following 10 years, leaving it with 2,289 residents counted in 2020.

Marfa Mayor Manny Baeza believed the count, saying, “I would think those numbers are accurate because of the number of Airbnbs we have in our town. In other words, residents aren’t moving to our community; it’s more Airbnbs going up.”

The mayor said he sees few avenues the city could take that could lead to growing the population of Marfa back in a meaningful way. The city has previously considered putting a cap on the number of short-term rentals within city limits. That effort was put on hold while they waited to see if the state legislative session this year would address short-term rental regulations, but few results have come.

The Texas Legislature and courts have continually affirmed the rights of homeowners to use their properties as short-term rentals and halted restrictions on short-term rentals by local governments. “I think our hands are tied. You can’t really tell people what to do with personal property,” he said.

Baeza attributed the declining population of Marfa to a mixture of continually growing real estate prices and the sparse availability of jobs in the area that pay enough to afford housing and other costs of living in Marfa. “It’s too expensive in this town,” he said bluntly. “Honestly it just comes down to gentrification –– that’s what it boils down to.”

Population declines can impact city tax revenues and school enrollment and funding, and the census numbers can crucially shift the amount of federal funds the area can access over the next ten years.

Presidio City Manager Brad Newton has kept a keen eye on the census numbers in years past, believing that the threat of an undercount is higher in Presidio County for a wide variety of reasons.

Census tract 9502, which includes Presidio, Redford, Shafter and other unincorporated parts of south county, was counted at 5,184 in the 2010 Census. In 2020, that number was down to 3,842, a precipitous 25.9% drop.

Newton is skeptical, and he has reason to be. In 2010, the city of Presidio successfully petitioned the state demographer to adjust the population count upward within the Texas Demographic Center.

A key reason the state agreed to change population estimates in Presidio was the number of water utility connections the city had active. Currently, Presidio has 1,776 active meters. Newton said a conservative estimate that, on average, three people live in each household comes out to 5,328 residents just in Presidio limits, well off the census estimate of 3,842 in south county’s census tract. Those meter counts account for both residential and commercial properties, however, meaning not all meters have residents associated with them.

In Marfa, the utilities department said it had 1,500 active meters, but the mayor estimated that more than 150 are associated with short-term rentals, others are commercial properties, and still more are second homes whose owners do not claim Marfa as their primary residence. Still, the 2,289 estimated residents of north county according to the census would be an undercount if meters were calculated at three residents per meter in Marfa.

In 2010, water meter data was used as evidence to change the population estimate of Presidio with the state demographer, whose office did not respond to requests for comment about the methodology used to change population estimates, or whether Presidio could be contested again this year. But Newton plans to approach the state entity again this year and ask that the population estimate for Presidio be moved upward again.

“Let’s face it, there’s no secret that the census can’t count,” Newton said, “but it’s not totally their fault because a lot of people don’t want to be counted.” There are a variety of reasons he believes the census missed out on counting people in Presidio.

The area has rural, remote pockets where residences are spaced out and hard to reach and a historical issue of discrepancies between official addresses and actual street addresses. Some were hesitant to answer the door to a stranger, especially during the pandemic. Others may have heard it was online and didn’t have access to reliable internet or a computer. Some working in Odessa and living in Presidio could have been counted up north, or nowhere at all.

Others, he believed, were afraid “especially with the noise from Washington of, ‘Are you a citizen?’” During the Trump administration’s running of the census, there was talk of adding a citizenship question, which may have deterred some from answering, even though the question was ultimately not included in the census survey.

Not only does Newton think the population didn’t shrink by 25.9%, he believes it has grown, and he’s not the only one. Presidio EMS Director Malynda Richardson pointed to a number of new buildings in town, staffing among Customs and Border Protection in the area and, within her experiences working EMS, she said, “I know our ambulance calls are not going in the same direction as a 25% decrease. We’re not seeing fewer calls. If we had a 25% decrease in population, our call volume would reflect that and it does not.” Richardson said residents in the area don’t understand the census numbers’ impact on financial assistance to the county.

“I’ve been through this once back in 2011 when we did this,” Newton said. “If you live here, you’re going to have water, so that’s a very accurate way to figure it out. It worked for us in 2010, so we’ll take a stab at correcting those numbers like we did back then by going through the state demographer with our water meter counts.” He added, “We’ve got time to challenge this.”