Chamber leaders and locals urge City Council to regulate STRs, as some STR owners push back

MARFA — When Marfa City Council convened on Tuesday evening for its regular meeting, it was before an unusually full house — over a dozen residents had packed into the room’s limited seating to share their thoughts on a controversial petition circulated by the leadership of the Marfa Chamber of Commerce imploring officials to explore more stringent short-term rental regulations.

The petition was presented by Chamber President Abby Boyd at Tuesday’s meeting, where she called upon City Council members to “research and enact effective and fair regulations to slow the proliferation of short-term rentals in Marfa,” and pointed to the petition’s 262 signers (residents, former residents, and few visitors, said Boyd) as evidence of a bubbling frustration with the status of housing — or lack thereof — among locals.

“The reason we started this petition is because we know not all of our citizens feel comfortable expressing themselves publicly. Frankly, some have lost hope or confidence in the city’s ability to take charge of this situation,” said Boyd. “I think of these supporters as a quiet majority.”

In an effort to draw out a louder consortium, the chamber had taken to social media the week prior urging any supporters to show up in person for the meeting. On Tuesday, supporters did show up to bolster the chamber’s efforts, including residents who spoke to the difficulty of finding affordable, long-term housing in Marfa — a problem they believe is exacerbated by the saturation of short-term rentals for visitors. 

So, in equal number, did detractors and skeptics, who said they feared onerous regulations that could hinder or even prohibit their STR operations. 

Marfa elementary school teacher Jacqueline Hernandez, who grew up in town, was among those who questioned the impact STRs had on working class residents’ ability to live in the place they call home. Part of the problem, she said, was that the long-term rentals that were available were simply not affordable for someone living on a teacher’s salary.

“The long-term rental prices are not realistic for the working people in Marfa,” said Hernandez. “I don’t know if y’all want us to live with our extended family for the rest of our lives here.”

Hernandez said she had perused available short-term rentals and noticed that many of the operators don’t live in Marfa, leading her to question their investment in the community.

“I’m not against STRs, but I just want us to take a closer look at who we’re really affecting in this community,” she said. “I was looking at the Airbnbs today — a lot of them … live in New Orleans, Austin, LA. I don’t know who those people are. What do you bring to this community? Are you here to make money? Are you here to benefit the community? How, the tourists?”

Marfa native Yasmine Guevara, a Judd Foundation employee, said she also was unable to afford a long-term rental in her hometown. She worried about how the lack of affordable housing would impact her son, who she hoped to raise in Marfa, and future generations.

“I’m passionate about this — I want to live in this town, I want to be able to afford a home,” said Guevara. “I want my son to grow up here. I want him to go to school. I want him to be able to enjoy the things I was able to enjoy.”

A few locals who manage properties expressed confusion at complaints about a long-term rental deficit, claiming they had struggled to find long-term renters for their properties.

“I’ve been looking for long-term renters: come out, come out, wherever you are,” said Melissa Bent of Marfa Realty, who said she manages properties with multiple bedrooms that were under $2,000 a month. 

Bent said she had clients who rent out STRs who live out of town, but either spend part of their time in Marfa or hope to retire in the town one day. “Not once has anyone made a solely investment purchase,” she said.

George Miles, who spoke at the meeting, is among that set. He said his wife Claire grew up in Marfa, where her family had resided since 1978, and that they inherited the family home in 2019. They’re currently fixing it up and plan to rent it out as an STR — a necessity to keep up with rising property taxes, he said — before retiring there. Miles said he was concerned about losing that option.

“We’re very concerned about how this petition will directly affect our ability to keep this house which has been with Claire’s family for almost half a century, and thus our ability to retire here in Marfa,” he said.

Longtime local Carolyn Pfeiffer, meanwhile, said she rents out a casita on her property for $125 a night, which allows her to make “just enough to help pay county taxes.” She doesn’t believe anyone would want her small, kitchen-less casita as a long-term rental.

“It would be really painful to have it shut down,” she said.

The chamber’s leadership has never advocated for the shuttering or prohibiting of STRs — in fact, it has not advocated for any specific regulations at all. Boyd has stated that it is incumbent upon the City Council to do the work of researching options.

The chamber, in its petition, does argue that the proliferation of STRs negatively impacts the community by depleting long-term rental availability and raising the cost of living. 

There is research to suggest unregulated STRs make it more difficult for locals to find affordable housing. A study from the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, on the “economic costs and benefits of Airbnb” found that evidence suggests the expansion of Airbnb reduces local housing supplies and drives up housing costs.

But the matter of regulating STRs in Texas has been contentious, and fraught with legal challenges. In 2022, a group of property owners sued the City of Austin over an ordinance prohibiting STRs that fell into a certain category — properties not occupied by the homeowner. A trial court ruled in the city’s favor, but an appeals court overturned that ruling, declaring it unconstitutional. Years prior, in 2018, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of a San Antonio resident whose homeowners association had tried to prohibit him from renting out his home.

Still, Austin is relatively heavy-handed in its regulation of its STR market. The city enforces various rules by zoning and according to which category an STR falls into — those that are not owner-occupied, for instance, “may not be located on a lot that is within 1,000 feet of a lot on which another short-term rental (Type 2) use is located,” per the city website. The city also enforces strict licensing requirements and imposes steep fines on those who violate them.

As for current STR regulations in Marfa, the city requires operators to obtain a permit for $500 and to pay an additional $100 per unit — those permits must be renewed annually. Operators must also pay city HOT taxes in order to keep their permits and fulfill a host of requirements upon applying. The city imposes noncompliance fees. Marfa does not impose restrictions on the number of STRs or their location.

A bill currently making its way through the Texas Legislature would restrict cities’ ability to regulate STRs. If passed, the bill would make it illegal for cities to “expressly or effectively prohibit the use of a property as a short term rental property,” limit the duration or frequency of use of a property as an STR or limit the number of occupants. 

After Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Manny Baeza told The Big Bend Sentinel that he plans to explore potential regulations if he is re-elected in the upcoming May election, but that the city has been hesitant to pull the trigger in the past given current legislation and the history of the courts.

“If I’m re-elected, we’ll look into the matter, of course. It also depends on the legislation right now — that’s why we’ve been on hold as far as more regulations [go],” said Baeza. “The state usually sides with property owners versus cities, so we’re trying to see what the regulations are before taking this further.”

Beyond the state courts and halls of power, the issue has become heated within the small community of Marfa. Boyd’s advocacy in her capacity as Chamber of Commerce president — in February, she voiced support for a strongly-worded letter to Texas legislators advocating for local STR control — has garnered some backlash from critics, who see the advocacy as an attack on STR operators and anti-business.

At Tuesday’s meeting, STR operator Nina Dietzel characterized the chamber’s actions as a “witch hunt,” and said its actions have been “divisive and polarizing.”

Boyd, when presenting the petition at the start of the meeting, said that “a few of the people who profit off of STRs don’t want us to even have this conversation,” and have “attacked us personally.”

Ultimately, Boyd’s advocacy on behalf of the chamber led to her departure from a job with the City of Marfa, where she was director of tourism. Following the chamber’s advocacy around the letter in February, she was given an ultimatum: continue to work for the city, or continue her volunteer work for the chamber. She chose to leave the city, tendering her resignation in mid-February. Her last day was March 17. 

“I felt the city deserved for this conversation to continue,” said Boyd. “I checked and no one in City Council was moving forward, so I felt it was my duty to stick with what I had started.” (Mayor Baeza declined to comment on Boyd’s departure, saying the city does not discuss personnel matters).

Moving forward, chamber leaders will be launching a “community committee” of citizens called Help Occupy Marfa Equitably (HOME), which will operate independently and will aim to tackle housing issues in Marfa.

“It’s free from any overarching organization,” said Chamber Treasurer Kate Calder, who owns local business Communitie Marfa. “It’s just an independent gathering of people that have the same goals.”

The launching of the committee comes amidst criticisms that the Chamber of Commerce should not be taking such hardline stances on STR operations — a criticism Calder said she and Boyd were happy to address.

“This is a sticking point for people, that it shouldn’t be related to the Chamber of Commerce, and that’s fine,” she said.

Boyd said the committee will “start with the STR issue, because that’s what we’re tracking progress on right now,” but will concern itself with housing issues beyond just STR regulations in Marfa.

“This is a very long-term problem for Marfa, and it’s going to take a long time to find all the different solutions that it’s going to take,” said Boyd.