From her office in Questa, New Mexico’s Visitor Center, Lindsay Mapes can walk out the door, cross a vacant lot and peer through the windows of several empty houses. Some look ready for their residents to return, with photos still on the walls and chairs at the table. In others, the ceilings have begun to sag. A cream-colored house with a peaked tin roof and a wooden porch gazes eastward toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. With its dramatic views and architectural charm, it has what real estate agents call great potential. But the house has been empty for years.
“It sits there so lonely and sad,” said Mapes, Questa’s economic development director. A pair of teenagers parked their car at the end of the lot, and she chatted with them long enough to make sure that the property owner knew they were there.
The current owner, Estevan Rael-Gálvez, doesn’t want to sell the house; he spent his childhood here and wants to keep a toehold in the community. But he isn’t ready to live in it, either. He’s one of many homeowners who want to hold on to family properties, even though their jobs or circumstances have taken them away from a place they consider home. The 2014 closure of the nearby molybdenum mine sped many of those departures. Mapes was hired through the Questa Economic Development Fund, an independent nonprofit that is financially supported by the mine’s owner, Chevron.
In June 2017, she drove through the village counting vacant homes. After two days, she stopped at 99. According to census data, about 17% of the houses in this 1,770-person community still have their “hats and boots” — roofs and a viable foundation — but no signs of occupancy.
Though Airbnb has developed a reputation for draining small mountain towns of affordable rentals and destroying community identity, Mapes thinks that the company just might be able to help Questa rebuild itself.
Mapes sees short-term rentals as a way to provide income for homeowners and a welcome for more tourists, thus enabling the village — perched between the peaks of the Carson National Forest and the canyons of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument — to capitalize on its outdoor recreation potential.
“Instead of getting a hotel owner to come and build some Motel 6, we’re addressing it from a very grassroots level,” Mapes said. “These homes are less in jeopardy of being sold, so it’s keeping the social fabric of the town and staving off gentrification.”
QUESTA SITS AT THE SOUTHERNMOST EDGE of the San Luis Valley in north-central New Mexico, where the headwaters of the Red River emerge from the blue profiles of the 12,000-foot-tall mountains near Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest point, plunging into the black-walled canyons of the Rio Grande Gorge.
The town was founded in the early 1800s, when the Spanish government gave a land grant to 50 Spanish families and sent them north to graze sheep and plant beans and corn — and, in the process, displace the Jicarilla Apaches, Utes, Comanches and other local tribes. Nearly 80% of Questeños claim ties to those early settlers, according to a report from the Taos-based group Rio Chiquito Research and Consulting.
Questa was once home to 2,200, with a bustling main street and shops that supplied farmers, ranchers and prospectors. The farming community became a mining town after molybdenum was found nearby in the early 1900s. Now, the open-pit mine and its tailings ponds are a Superfund site that requires millions of dollars and decades of remediation work, and Questa’s population hovers around just 1,700. Many fear that as more people leave, an important piece of the Southwest’s colorful cultural mosaic will disappear. A town that tells a story of itself as a community that takes care of its own will lose that identity.
“It can seem like a better idea to let the house sit than to sell it to a newcomer who may or may not make the effort to weave themselves into the community that they’re moving into,” said Gillian Joyce of Rio Chiquito Research and Consulting, who co-authored a report on Questa’s lodging program.
If those buildings disappear, she said, they’ll take with them cultural touchstones: the old corner store, the old school, a grandmother’s house.
Mapes has launched a two-pronged effort aimed at preserving some of them. Along with working to increase Airbnbs, she hopes to create long-term rentals by offering low-interest loans for home repairs as well as property management services through the Questa Economic Development Fund. She has recruited half a dozen vacant homes for a pilot rental program, designed to draw residents from the tighter rental markets in Taos and Red River, both about a half-hour drive away.
Mapes has also helped to add almost 10 spare bedrooms, casitas and duplexes to Airbnb. She answers homeowners’ questions, takes photographs and drafts the listing, then links it to the owner’s bank account and cellphone to manage. With a quarter of Questa’s households living on $15,000 a year, extra income can make a big difference.
Diane deFremary, a 70-something-year-old with a chin-length bob clipped back by barrettes, was among the first participants in the Airbnb program, listing two of the three bedrooms in her house. She bought five acres up a dirt road almost two decades ago and built a manufactured home with a painting studio, deck and walled garden.
On a warm July afternoon tempered by a breeze, she sat on the porch and described her various guests — “nothing but good experiences.” She’s hosted skiers and snowboarders from Texas, a retiree from Ireland, a couple of jewelers running a festival booth and a painting instructor who came for a weeklong plein air event. Three biology students stayed there for an entire month while studying a prairie dog colony. The income deFremary earns buffers the seasonal fluctuations in her employment.
“It’s how I made it through April,” she said.
JUST 20 MILES DOWN THE HIGHWAY in Taos, vacation rentals have been blamed for crowding the rental market and pricing out the local workforce. When deFremary visits the bustling, artsy community near the Taos Pueblo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited Native communities in the United States, she can’t help but be aware of the problems and controversy. Still, she said, “It’s not going to hurt anything (for Questa). It’s just going to help.”
But Joyce, who lives in Taos, remains cautious about Airbnb’s role in Questa. “I don’t see a problem with some of them converting into Airbnbs,” she said, given proper licensing, fees and taxes, and a reasonable limit on their number.
In Taos, vacation rentals have consumed such a sizable portion of the housing that they’re shifting the town’s economics and demographics. Rental and home sales prices in Taos are well above what’s affordable for locals who earn the median income. According to census data from 2010, the most recent available, nearly 23% of Taos County homes are second homes — nearly four times the statewide average. And those numbers predate the rise of Airbnb, so 2020’s census may show a worsening trend. At the same time, the town’s legacy Hispano families are leaving; 2010 marked the first year less than half of the population identified as such. Locals joke that Taos’ downtown plaza isn’t even part of “town” anymore: It’s become a tourist spot.
Questa should take heed, Joyce cautioned: “The plaza is not going to mean what it historically meant to the local community if it’s primarily a place for tourists.”
Mapes said that the homes closest to the plaza in Questa have been prioritized for the long-term rental program. She agrees that Airbnb is a good thing “with moderation.” But licenses and taxes are still a long way off — there’s no village staff to handle it, she said — and now is not the time to be creating roadblocks.
“The day that Questa has a problem with Airbnb, I think that will be kind of a celebratory problem — like we made it,” she said. “Then we’ll have other problems to work on.”
Meanwhile, Estevan Rael-Gálvez, the owner of the empty cream-colored home off the highway, envisions something unique for the house one day. He’d like to see it used for an artist residency program or as the headquarters of a local nonprofit.
When Rael-Gálvez was growing up in Questa, his grandmother always set an extra plate at the table, just in case. He learned from her, and from the rest of his community, to try to leave the world better than you found it. But unfortunately, he said, in Questa, “the economy often does not support one’s dreams, or one’s realities of having to just make it in a small town.”
He wants the town to think seriously about its future. “How do we still ensure that there’s a connection between those who have left — an understanding that they can come back someday?”
But he’s reluctant to give into the Airbnb trend, fearing that the village could become too dependent on tourism. That dependency has transformed other towns and led to depopulation and gentrification across the West. Mapes has tried to recruit him, but he’s not interested in running an Airbnb.
However, he is interested in the long-term rental program that’s inviting families back to town. Rael-Gálvez, who owns three houses, is considering taking that option with one of them, testing it as a way to stave off the deterioration of local historic properties. He wants to provide affordable housing for people who live in Questa rather than tourists who are just passing through.
“I’m so tied to it personally, because it’s where I was raised — in at least one of these houses — so I have always said, I would never sell. From a business standpoint, that’s crazy,” he said. “But I also have this image in my mind of, I want to return someday. Maybe not now, but I want to be under that old apricot tree as an old man.”
This story was originally published at High Country News on September 20, 2019.