News

Marfa’s Art World Gentrification Is Pushing Out Long-Time Residents

by Laura C. Mallonee on August 11, 2014

"Prada Marfa" by Elmgreen and Dragset (photograph by Marshall Astor, via Wikimedia Commons)

Was Elmgreen & Dragset’s “Prada Marfa” (2005) more prescient than we thought? (photo by Marshall Astor, via Wikimedia)

After artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa, Texas in 1971, he quickly transformed the cow-town into the art world’s desert outpost, much to the chagrin of some locals. Now, the gentrifying city’s rising property values and mushrooming taxes are threatening to push out long-time residents altogether, according to an eye-opening article by John MacCormack published last month in the San Antonio Express-News

Unhappy residents are protesting after a reappraisal of Presidio County properties found their values have doubled in the past year to $1.14 billion, from $563 million in 2013. “A couple of the rich types moved in and paid an arm and a leg for a lot, and then resold it for more, so now the people who live out here find themselves saddled with these escalating valuations,” retired county employee Marge Hughes told the newspaper.

Move to Marfa today and you can purchase a five-bedroom home that Judd once owned for $735,000; though cheaper than a New York brownstone, it’s astronomical by West Texas standards. Several homes in Marfa are priced above $350,000, and many more are in the $200,000 range, according to the newspaper. That’s significantly higher than the $22,000 that Hughes paid for her house 14 years ago; it’s now worth $120,290.

“It’s hard to find anything livable in Marfa for under $100,000, and what you get for that is a small one-bedroom. We still have a lot of out-of-state people looking. Locals not so much,” 71-year-old resident Valda Livingston said. “The young people who grew up in Marfa for the most part can’t stay. It’s the job market. All three of my children are in San Antonio. They couldn’t make a living in Marfa.”

From the Soho and Williamsburg neighborhoods in New York to Santa Fe in New Mexico, artists have frequently upset existing social fabrics in their quest for cheap rent. Though Marfa’s art renaissance has drawn much outside investment, transforming it from “just a dying, little West Texas cow town” — as a retired U.S. Border Patrol agent told the newspaper — to one of the state’s hottest destinations, it has sidelined many with deeper Marfa roots. After watching their town reinvent itself, they may now also have to reinvent their own lives. That hurts artists, too. Instead of living in a diverse, challenging community that might inspire them in new ways, they settle into an echo chamber.

“We’re lucky the world discovered Marfa, but the week your property values get sextupled is not the best time to get people to admit it,” cartoonist Gary Oliver said. “This is a rich town because a small percentage of the people have a lot of assets. But if your taxes go up enough so you can’t pay them, what are you going to do?”

“We’re all sick and tired of these little fluff pieces about Marfa,” 72-year-old painter Emily Hocker said. “This is a wonderful place, but just like other wonderful places suffering from gentrification, the poor people always get shoved aside. A lot of people who grew up here are suddenly on the fringe.”

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  • Nicholas Knight

    Hmm, this article strikes me as a bit sloppy. Yes, “Marfa” is cool, and yes, “gentrification” gets all the artists happily feeling bad about themselves, as if the experience of liberal guilt counted as doing something. I met Mr. MacCormack when he was here, and I think his article is very fair. The rephrasing of it by Ms. Mallonee, however, puts the reader farther away from the contradictions that MacCormack edged up to but never quite stated.

    A big part of the disconnect here on Hyperallergic is that the politics of it are local (Presidio County and State of Texas). Here are some links that add specificity to the broad-brush generalities:

    1. Reporting on the original appraisal increase by Sarah Vasquez:
    http://bigbendnow.com/2014/05/values-increase-50-percent-or-more-in-countywide-reappraisal/

    2. Follow up on the appraisal protests by Vasquez:
    http://bigbendnow.com/2014/07/appraisal-review-board-begins-protest-hearings/

    3. In-depth statement by Andrew Peters, Superintendent of Marfa schools:
    http://bigbendnow.com/2014/07/the-road-to-excellence-7/

    The ability for local residents to protest the appraisals was always part of the process. Local residents, furthermore, are protected by homesteading laws that limit tax increases, regardless of how much the appraisal increases. For the getaway-house-in-Marfa crowd, if they can’t be bothered to argue for an appropriate appraisal, then the city’s tax base benefits.

    One potential benefit of the increase is that it may introduce more stock into the rental market. With property taxes artificially low, owners have no reason to bother with tenants. But rental income will be a way to manage a higher tax bill, and that new stock in the market will be important.

    In terms of the job market, yes, it’s awful. But the logic that suggests it would somehow be *better* if the town had continued to decline for the last 20 years doesn’t add up.

    Finally, this is just weird: “Instead of living in a diverse, challenging community that might inspire them in new ways, they settle into an echo chamber.” How in the world does this bit of editorializing apply specifically to Marfa, as opposed to every community of people of every persuasion everywhere on Earth, if it even applies in that case?

  • Jeffrey Turner

    Hi, having been to Marfa all I can say is that anyone paying more than 50G for a house there is nuts.

  • punktoad

    Gentrification of the high desert. Next it will be gentrification of the deep sea. The world evolves as it always has, even in Marfa.

  • Anne VanLoon

    Locals love the money that pours in, but they don’t want anything to do with the folks that bring it. I live the next town over. Honestly, there isn’t much else in Marfa but cattle ranching-and those folks who have to move to find a job would have to do that anyway. We have a super high poverty level out here no matter how you cut it and gentrification isn’t the problem.

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