Tom Blauvelt never imagined that he would be discussing the party house at 16601 Jackson Street with state lawmakers. But there he was on an April day in an underground warren of the state Capitol being grilled by legislators from Kingsville, Odessa, and San Antonio over his tiny Central Texas town’s handling of a single lakeside short-term rental.
Blauvelt, a sales executive, is the unpaid mayor of the village of Volente, an affluent community of about six hundred on the north shore of Lake Travis, some twenty miles northwest of downtown Austin. In recent years, the town has seen a surge in Airbnbs, many of them operating without the permits that the town requires. But few had rattled the community as much as what Blauvelt calls the “Mar-a-Lago-type house” on Jackson Street, a $5.4 million lakeside villa boasting a ten-person infinity hot tub and two heated pools, one with a swim-up bar. Neighbors complained of loud music, trespassing, buses parked on the narrow streets, drunken strangers partying at all hours, and even drones flying overhead. Amid the flurry of complaints, the village government issued the owners of the rental business—an Odessa couple, Russell Subia and Michelle Villanueva—two violations of a city ordinance for operating an unpermitted short-term rental business and asked them to apply for a permit. It was all a matter of hyperlocal concern, the kind of quality-of-life stuff that typically stays confined to Nextdoor chatter or heated city council meetings.
But then Subia and Villanueva hired a lawyer to represent them in dealings with Volente. And not just any lawyer: Brooks Landgraf also happens to be the state representative for a chunk of the West Texas oil patch that includes Odessa, about a five and a half hour drive northwest of Volente. When the couple’s permit application came up before Volente’s planning and zoning commission, it was Landgraf who pleaded their case, promising that his clients would start being “good neighbors.” He was unsuccessful—the city council rejected the permit, citing an incomplete application and the nuisance issues.
There was nothing abnormal about Landgraf representing legal clients. Texas pays its citizen-legislators a salary of just $7,200 per year so they must, out of financial necessity, treat the Lege as a bit of a side hustle. But then in March, after failing to get his clients their permit, Landgraf filed legislation specifically targeting Volente’s short-term rental regulations. There’s no doubt about that because the bill says it only applies to “a municipality that has a population of less than 1,000 and borders Lake Travis”—and Volente is the only such town. And that’s how Blauvelt ended up at the Capitol talking about the local party house.
What unfolded is one of those grubby under-the-radar dramas at the Lege that often gets lost amid headline-grabbing issues: Pornography in schools! Drag queens! Bryan Slaton! Here we have a somewhat novel twist on the legislative tradition of “vendor bills”—legislation financially benefiting a specific interest, usually carried by a lawmaker with ties to a certain lobbyist or business. Landgraf has filed a bill to blow up the local laws of a small town hundreds of miles away from his district for the benefit of one couple—who pay him as his legal clients. Like many vendor bills, HB 3169 purports to address a pressing issue of public policy, in this case an increasingly common theme in the GOP-controlled Legislature: an overzealous local government infringing upon private property rights. But it’s worth noting that neither Landgraf nor any other lawmaker seemed troubled that Odessa, where Landgraf owns a home, bans short-term rentals in any part of the city zoned for single-family residences—a policy far more restrictive than anything Volente has even contemplated.
In a bizarre hearing in April, the House Committee on Urban Affairs heard hours of testimony from Blauvelt, Volente council members, Villanueva, and several of her neighbors. In Villanueva’s telling, the village is treating her more harshly than other short-term rental owners in Volente, rejecting her permit application without cause. “I have not been able to get justice and have due process at the village office level,” she told the committee. “So I contacted my representative to get help to have fairness and justice.” Landgraf accused the village of having “two different sets of rules: a restrictive, maybe discriminatory, set that apply only to Michelle Villanueva and her husband and then another set for everyone else.”
The Volente folks seemed alternately bewildered and angry. Was Landgraf acting as a public policymaker or merely doing legwork for his wealthy legal clients? And why was a state representative for a district 330 miles away attacking little Volente, Texas? Landgraf, Blauvelt told the committee, is “not a representative of our community, yet he has targeted our community through this bill.” His clients, he added, had “hired Representative Landgraf to file a bill that would eliminate our ability to enforce our ordinance. This bill keeps the party going and keeps the money flowing and to heck with the neighbors.” (Landgraf told Texas Monthly that all of his work on the bill was in his capacity as a lawmaker, not as the couple’s attorney.)
The unusual nature of the hearing was compounded when the committee chair, J. M. Lozano, a Kingsville Republican, invited Landgraf, who is not a member of the committee, to sit on the dais and ask questions, a perch from which he engaged in some light cross-examination of Blauvelt and others. At one point, Stephanie Ashworth, an Austin activist with a grassroots group fighting the proliferation of lightly regulated short-term rentals across the state, turned the questioning around, asking Landgraf why he was carrying a bill for constituents who live in Odessa. “This sets an ugly precedent,” she said, “that a representative from a different district can target a little bitty village on Lake Travis and file a bill that tries to usurp their local authority.” By the end of the hearing, Landgraf seemed a bit sheepish. “I understand I probably won’t be handed a key to the city as a result of this bill,” he said.
Watching the proceedings was Scott Attwood, one of the neighbors of the party house in Volente who had complained regularly about the next-door debauchery. Attwood hadn’t planned to testify, but he changed his mind because the hearing had taken on what he called a “good ol’ boys” tone. He told the committee that his neighbors started out friendly enough, but then the short-term rental business got started and he wasn’t happy. He asked the city if the neighbors had a short-term rental permit. They did not. A day later, he received a text from Subia. And at this point in the hearing, Attwood read into the record what may be the only instances of “you stupid f—ing bitch” and “f— you piece of shit, I got you MF” being used in a legislative hearing. “That’s the kind of neighbor I have,” said Attwood. Then he played a song on his phone—“The Way It Is,” by Bruce Hornsby; key lyric: “That’s just the way it is / Some things will never change.” He quipped, “If you want to listen to this all hours of the night, that’s fine, but sometimes I like to sleep.”
The night of the hearing, in an apparent coincidence of timing, the Volente Planning & Zoning Commission was set to vote on Villanueva and Subia’s application for a permit. But when the commission asked Villanueva whether she wanted to apply under an older ordinance or a tougher new one regulating short-term rentals, she asked for the vote to be postponed. She wanted to consult with Landgraf.
Ashworth was surprised when Landgraf’s bill targeting Volente’s regulations was voted out of committee on a 5–1 tally and then even more surprised when it made it through the House Calendars Committee—a key chokepoint in the legislative process, one that is regulated by House Speaker Dade Phelan and his leadership team. It was set to be voted on by the full House on May 10. “Every lobbyist told us not to worry about it,” Ashworth said. But “all the usual tactics have totally failed on this one bill.”
Landgraf defended his actions to Texas Monthly. “The filing of the bill, everything associated with the legislative process, has been in my role as a legislator, not in my role as a lawyer,” he said. He added that he had not been paid for his work on the bill, but acknowledged that Subia and Villanueva were his legal clients, that he had helped them with their short-term rental permit application, and that he had appeared in front of the Volente Planning & Zoning Commission in August as their attorney. He later attended another Volente meeting, he said, purely as a state lawmaker to do “research for the legislation.” Landgraf wouldn’t elaborate further on his relationship with Subia and Villanueva, citing attorney-client privilege.
Why had Landgraf singled out Volente, rather than Odessa, with its strict ban on short-term rentals in residential areas? “The only complaint that I’ve received anywhere in the state of Texas about that has been Volente,” he said.
By the time the legislation was ready for a vote on the House floor on May 10, Landgraf’s clients had won a victory: the Volente Planning & Zoning Commission had the day before recommended to the city council that it issue the couple a short-term rental permit, with the condition that guests respect quiet hours between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. and that the permit would be revoked after three substantial complaints. At his clients’ request, Landgraf postponed his bill, effectively killing it.
Ashworth believes, but can’t prove, that Volente officials folded because they were faced with a difficult choice: either give the owners of 16601 Jackson Street a permit or face the gutting of their short-term rental ordinance through legislative fiat. Mayor Blauvelt denied that the legislation had any bearing on the commission’s decision, pointing out that the city council has yet to make the final decision. A vote is set for May 16.
Landgraf, meanwhile, framed the development as a fresh start for everyone. His clients had told him that they are “trying to start a new chapter in their relationship with the local officials and that it would be a show of goodwill to ask me to not pursue the legislation.”