July 19, 2022

‘Is your land for sale?’ Alarming offers to buy property in the burn zone

Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Ralph Vigil, a member of the New Mexico Acequia Commission, at his house in Pecos.

April Hoogerhuies got the phone call in the middle of packing up her home in Las Vegas, frantically trying to get things ready in case the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon inferno forced her to evacuate.  

“Is your land for sale?” the caller inquired.

It was two weeks after the wildfire started, and the blaze was imperiling people’s lives — evacuation orders were in the offing for nearly every village from Mora to Las Vegas. Hoogerhuies could already see flames engulfing the nearby hills.

“This isn’t the time or place for this,” she replied.  

The caller rattled off a company name too quickly to note, but it was clear she wanted to buy a plot of undeveloped property that Hoogerhuies and her husband Daniel own in Manuelitas, just east of Hermits Peak. The couple maintains a greenhouse on the land, where they plant crops like pumpkins, radishes and tomatoes.

Hoogerhuies was in a frenzy, packing up papers and medications while also trying to find a place for her elderly parents, in case they, too, needed to evacuate. Making a real estate deal was the farthest thing from her mind.

“I didn’t even know whether I was gonna have a house, much less property,” she said.  

In the weeks to follow, Hoogerhuies and her husband received several more offers for their six acres. Their answer always remained the same: No. 

This story was written by Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.

Across the fire zone, residents say they have seen an alarming pattern emerge: Companies are sending unsolicited letters and emails or making phone calls with quick, cash offers on land that either completely burned or was threatened by the fire, the biggest in New Mexico history. 

“I feel I’ve been spotted by circling vultures,” said Leah Tenorio-Acosta, who owns several adjoining properties in Taos Canyon.

A letter from the Texas-based Peak Land Ventures arrived at her home within a week of her Taos land being put on “ready” evacuation status. It came complete with a property purchase agreement and cash offer. The company, the letter said, “pays cash for unused & unwanted land.” All that was needed was a signature by May 6, 2022.  

Peak Land Ventures LLC was established in January of this year, according to filings from the Texas Secretary of State. Oliver Mulamba, who is listed as a managing member of the company, is described on LinkedIn as the chief technology officer for AquaSmart, a materials science company with a stated expertise in water, agriculture and, among many things, “increasing production in oil and gas.” Multiple requests for comment from Peak Land Ventures were not answered.

Tenorio-Acosta rebuffed the purchase offer but feared that others might take the money, even if their land — like hers — had been in the family for many generations. And even if the offer was for a steeply reduced price.

​​“We don’t want to start losing our gente (people) over a forest fire,” said Ralph Vigil, chairman of the New Mexico Acequia Commission and owner of Molino de la Isla Organics, in Pecos. He said he dreads a future where the disconsolate sell land in desperation and temporary displacement becomes a permanent fact of life.

This could be the “real Milagro Beanfield War,” suggested Vigil, referring to the novel and film about a New Mexico village that battles outside developers. “It’s an environmental issue. It’s a conservation issue. It’s a moral issue. It’s a food security issue. There are so many issues tied together if we start selling out, and if we’re allowed to be consumed by developers from cities who only have profit in mind.”

‘Disaster capitalism’

Unsolicited offers are nothing new. Savvy real estate investment involves buying and selling property for a profit, and this can include buying property damaged by hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and other disasters. Appropriate development can even be a lifeline for battered communities. 

But post-disaster exploitation is a known problem. And in the last two decades, it’s become commonplace for “disaster investors” to capitalize on the chaos that ensues after catastrophes, a practice that’s been dubbed disaster capitalism. From the corporate profiteering and privatization in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to land grabs made after the deadly Camp Fire in Northern California, the playbook is the same. Plummeting home and land values, lack of insurance, feelings of hopelessness, and the slow trickle of federal relief all compel people to sell their properties. Some may benefit. Others sell for bargain-basement prices to buyers who develop or resell for sizable profits down the road.

Renia Ehrenfeucht, a professor in the University of New Mexico’s Community and Regional Planning Department, has closely followed what happens when uncertainty reigns. Much of her research was conducted in New Orleans, in the months and years after Hurricane Katrina, where predatory developers were known to “buy low and wait” for the market to appreciate. This kind of profit motive “is not about the community,” she said. “It’s not about trying to create conditions that are good for people living there now. 

“People who defend this, who see it as a positive thing are just like, ‘But look everyone, it’s a form of enlightened self-interest,’” Ehrenfeucht continued. But what’s at stake are “really different kinds of visions for the area.” When developers represent outside interests, she said, the local residents’ visions get pushed aside.

Predatory behavior is difficult to track. There is no readily available data on the number of purchase offers made in the nearly 342,000-acre fire zone, which stretches some 50 miles from the Santa Fe National Forest, just east of Pecos, to the village of Chacon. Even harder to establish are the identities of the companies or individuals making such offers and their development plans, if any. But locals, at least in Mora, fear a replay of the aughts, when frackers and oil and gas speculators made overtures to landowners, prompting years of community-wide resistance and a landmark ban on oil and gas drilling (later overturned in court).

San Miguel and Mora County assessors say they haven’t seen evidence of an uptick in developers buying land from locals. Their attention at the moment is on other pressing matters, such as tax bill protests and removing burnt homes from the tax rolls. “This is our busiest season,” said Paul Espinoza, senior appraiser with San Miguel County. One protest on his desk stood out: ALL TREES DESTROYED, it read in large red script. 

Red flags for owners

The New Mexico Real Estate Commission, an agency that licenses and oversees the state’s real estate brokers, advises people to exercise caution — and get legal advice — before acting on an unsolicited purchase offer. “Generally speaking, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Bernice Geiger, a state licensing and regulation spokesperson, said in an email. Pressure to enter a transaction with “excessive haste” is on the commission’s list of red flags (see below).

The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office has not heard reports of profiteering. “We have received complaints from survivors relating to support resources and assistance,” spokesperson Jerri Mares wrote in an email. “However, we have not received complaints about predatory real estate transactions in the area.”

Locals nevertheless say the anxiety is palpable. One week in May, Ralph Vigil said he fielded some 20 phone calls. The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire had forced thousands of residents to flee their homes, and some who’d been solicited by real estate companies were looking for his advice.

“Should I or should I not sell?” he recalled them asking. “My response to all of them was that there’s more value in that property based on heritage, culture, history, querencia” — the care and love of land and water. Even if the tangible things like homes, barns and timber had been lost, there was still one’s connection to the land. That was irreplaceable. Once sold, the land would be gone forever.

“Are developers approaching property owners?” Vigil asked in a Facebook post in June.  “No rumors please, all I need is a yes or no and I don’t need developers’ names.”

Yesses came pouring in, a review of the post showed. “Guard your water rights,” one person wrote in response. “Don’t sell period,” another implored.

Alarm threaded its way through the commentary, fueled, in part, by a lingering sense of mistrust in developers. They had already begun to change the character of northern New Mexico, it was argued, building gated communities for the wealthy and threatening to siphon water rights out of rural areas. Vigil is particularly worried that water rights  — a resource and form of wealth for northern New Mexico’s traditional communities — were at greater risk now.

One of the biggest fears is that people will be forced to sell because they feel they have no other option. With so many lacking homeowners’ insurance and facing disaster assistance denials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — or reimbursements that only cover a fraction of the damages — cutting one’s losses may feel like the only recourse.

“I’m not going to hold that against anybody for selling,” said Max Trujillo, a San Miguel County Commissioner and local realtor. But if people feel cornered into making a life-altering decision in haste, that’s an altogether different scenario. “Don’t let anybody tell you that you’ve lost more than you have,” he advised. “We see our loss, we see what our place looks like, but our place is gonna recover and it will regain its value after some time.”

There’s no certainty about exactly how much time a recovery might take. Housing booms followed within two years of both Hurricane Katrina and the Camp Fire, but only in some areas.  In northern New Mexico’s fire zone, it’s still too early to predict much of anything. “This is a unique event,” said Raymond Montaño, chief appraiser for San Miguel County.
 

Neighbors on the brink

Andrew Vigil nevertheless fears that sales will soon be coming — and understands the desperation people feel. On a recent day, he scrolled through photos on his cell phone, reminding himself of how his land and home, which he built himself, looked before the wildfire ripped through Tierra Monte.

Since evacuating, Vigil goes daily to Old Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas to help volunteers serve meals to other evacuees. He can be seen taking out the trash or greeting people at the door. But at the end of the day, he goes back to the Town House Motel in Las Vegas, hoping he’ll be tired enough to fall asleep. He and his wife have now been there for three months. They’ve lost everything, but remain determined to rebuild. “Whether they help me or not, I’m going back,” Vigil said emphatically.

His neighbor feels differently. So forlorn is the man that selling feels like the only thing left to do. Vigil laments not only his own loss, but the idea that his neighbor’s land might fall into the hands of someone else, someone who may not share his love of place.  

“I tell him and his wife, ‘don’t give up.’”

 Unique values, harsh impacts

Wildfire disasters in the West often happen in what’s called the“wildland-urban interface,” where homes converge with forests. For the better part of the last century, Southern California epitomized this kind of landscape because Malibu, a wealthy mountain enclave, burned at a near-regular clip. But the term is most often applied to new development and to the trade-offs homebuyers make between increased wildfire risk and a good view.

Communities in northern New Mexico pre-date the designation not by decades, but by centuries, making them strikingly different from other areas swept by historic wildfires. Few, if any of the West’s most destructive blazes, have laid bare so many multi-generational homes on so much multi-generational land. 

This fact alone has made applying for disaster assistance through FEMA difficult: Because chains of title are often broken or unclear, scores of applications have been waylaid or denied, according to evacuees and local authorities.

These locals might find value in their land based on heritage and its ability to yield crops or timber. For an outside buyer looking to develop the land, on the other hand, the value might lie in the aesthetic that trees and remote valleys provide, or potentially in the mineral or water rights the lands confer. 

Even before the fires, out-of-state investors or LLCs were known to buy land in bulk, said Montaño, the chief appraiser. He didn’t cite any one developer, but referred to many potential investment scenarios. For instance, a developer might buy some 100 acres of land for $1,800 to $2,000 per acre and, after subdividing and adding utility hookups, resell for upwards of $100,000 per acre, he said.

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon blaze is at least temporarily sending those land values into a tailspin, as happens with any major catastrophe. In Butte County, California, where the deadly Camp Fire destroyed some 16,000 structures — as well as the entire town of Paradise — lots that once sold for $75,000 went for $10,000 in the weeks and months afterward, according to Butte County Assessor Diane Brown. “Whenever there’s any kind of a disaster, the buzzards start circling,” she said, matter-of-factly. “We did have a lot of people come up and try to pick up a bunch of lots for cheap.”

Within two years, property values shot up in Paradise and the surrounding community. People whose homes burned and who wanted to stay in the area found themselves competing for the few remaining houses. The lack of supply significantly hiked up home and rental prices across the county, a trend that hasn’t let up, Brown said.

Resilient real estate

Back in the New Mexico fire zone, Trujillo has faith that “the land is resilient.” It’s just a matter of time before it recovers. But developers, he said, know this too.

“They will have come away with thousands of acres at a greatly discounted price. And in a few years, their corporations will be able to sell these parcels or develop them and make a hundred times what they’re paying for them,” he predicted.

For now, assessors in Mora and San Miguel Counties are busy reestablishing the values of the land. Some property owners who got their tax bill in April will need to pay it in the coming weeks — for land ravaged by the conflagration. Changes in value won’t be reflected until 2023, leaving many to pay for empty, treeless lots.

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.