WEST MICHIGAN – With summer approaching, West Michigan communities are bracing for an influx of tourists who flock to the area to enjoy the Lake Michigan beaches, special events and other amenities.
Short-term rentals – ranging from Lake Michigan vacation cottages sleeping 10 or more to a single room inside a resident’s home – seem to be popping up throughout West Michigan to grab some of the tourism business. They’ve joined an industry that includes hotels, campgrounds, bed and breakfasts and other lodging options.
Not everyone is thrilled with more and more houses in residential neighborhoods being used as rentals. Some are concerned about the potential for additional noise and other issues that they contend full-time homeowners wouldn’t produce.
Buoyed by concerns stemming from some year-round residents, several West Michigan communities are instituting additional regulations for the short-term rental. Some governmental leaders are aiming to put a cap on the amount of short-term rentals; in at least a couple communities, outright bans have been instituted for specific zoning districts.
Some people say the market for short-term rentals in certain cities is close to over-saturation, if it’s not there already.
The issue spans across West Michigan, with towns nestled along Lake Michigan such as North Muskegon and Grand Haven and south to St. Joseph making moves to regulate the rentals.
Even Grand Rapids, where the demand for housing is high, is part of the short-term rental conversation. Websites like AirBnB and VRBO make listing a room or entire home for rent easier.
A short-term rental is loosely defined as a housing unit rented out for 30 days or less at least three times a year.
Year-round residents who enjoy the neighborhood setting in their town are concerned about the additional short-term rentals transforming a residential area into a commercial space.
Residents at a Grand Haven Planning Commission public forum on short-term rentals cited the renters speeding through neighborhoods where children play, using parking spaces not intended for them and creating a lot of noise.
However, the property owners who rent out the rooms or homes don’t want to lose their rental income. Some even use the rentals as a way to fund retirement.
Proponents of short-term rentals also point to money that flows into the local economy via visitors who stay at these rental homes. For many West Michigan communities, tourism is a key element of their economies.
Kevin Tringali, owner of Bella Vita Rentals in the Saugatuck and Douglas area, said the towns wouldn’t be able to flourish without tourists.
“If we didn’t have these people, we wouldn’t have livelihood,” Tringali said of the many locally owned businesses in Saugatuck supported by tourism dollars. “Our government supports the rental industry. They understand it is a lifeline to businesses here.”
Jan Goins of Grand Haven said he worries additional short-term rentals means the city could be on the verge of a place everyone wants to vacation but not a place to live year-round.
“Our pristine town is becoming the Key West of the north,” he said.
Cities and townships are being forced to balance the two competing viewpoints.
A town for tourists
Home of the Coast Guard Festival and the iconic Lake Michigan lighthouse, pier and catwalk, Grand Haven is a happening place, especially during the summer months.
The city can be considered a posterchild for the short-term rentals debate. As City Manager Pat McGinnis describes it, the city embraces its stature as a vacation destination for visitors, but it also doesn’t want to lose the single-family character of its neighborhoods.
He’s heard the concern that regulating short-term rentals is potentially “killing tourism.” However, many residents and local businesses have spoken: the market needs to be regulated, he said.
“The general idea is, we welcome visitors and love having them here,” McGinnis said. “The available stock is out there, we’re not taking that away.”
Opinions vary on how many short-term rental properties a specific residential area can carry and still strike a balance with being a year-round neighborhood.
In Grand Haven’s Southside District, for example, 78 of the 365 residential units are registered as short-term rentals. At 21 percent, the Southside District is close to reaching the point where, according to at least one city official, it begins to lose its neighborhood feeling. McGinnis said that point is 20-25 percent.
The debate is nothing new in Grand Haven. Governmental officials held discussions about the issue 10 years ago before adopting an ordinance in 2008.
With additional short-term rentals joining the market, city officials decided in late 2015 to take another look at the issue and the city’s regulations.
Grand Haven City Council is preparing to consider changes to its regulations this month, and it may stray from recommendations initially made by its Planning Commission. That follows months of meetings and public hearings before the city’s Planning Commission made recommendations of where new short-term rentals would be allowed.
When AirBnB guests of North Muskegon resident Sharon Clark took her neighbor’s path down to Muskegon Lake, her neighbor wasn’t pleased with strangers being on the property.
Now, Clark and her husband are no longer able to rent one bedroom out of their home to travelers because the neighbor took the problem to North Muskegon city officials. Clark was issued a cease-and-desist letter because the rental was not allowed.
Clark said the neighbor didn’t address the issue with her first. She said other neighbors had no idea what Clark was doing, and she contends they had no problems with it.
“It leads to a lot of bitter feelings,” she said.
Resident complaints have been a factor in deciding how to handle short-term rentals. Grand Haven Planning Commission held a public forum where several people made statements supporting or opposing the rentals. A survey was also sent out to gather residents’ opinions.
Goins said a short-term rental opened down the street from him and has caused some issues where he lives in Grand Haven’s Southside District, which includes Howard and Franklin Avenues.
One night, renters started a bonfire in the backyard, which he said was a potential hazard if sparks flew up the hillside near his home.
“We’re concerned because these people come in, have a great time, make a lot of noise and leave,” he said.
In addition to the issues neighbors have with some short-term renters, Kostamo said the properties may devalue neighborhoods.
“In the long run, I don’t think that’s good for home values,” Kostamo said. “It eventually will turn Grand Haven into a dark place in the winter.”
A West Michigan issue
The issue of whether to allow short-term rentals or not has had many West Michigan cities talking for several months, if not the past few years.
These cities are at various stages of considering regulations or even banning the rentals in specific areas.
In the coming weeks, Grand Haven will make a decision on its draft ordinance that could put a stop to short-term rentals in certain districts.
Holland City Council voted in August to allow short-term rentals of 30 consecutive days or less as long as the property is owner-occupied. But the city’s Planning Commission is set to evaluate potential amendments to the ordinance this month.
North Muskegon and Muskegon recently entered the conversation. Ferrysburg began debating the issue back in December.
Towns in southwest Michigan have also faced the problem. As of Jan. 1, an occupancy restriction for rentals was put in place in South Haven.
Meanwhile, Saugatuck already has ordinances that allow short-term rentals and even a packet available for people to register their single-family homes as rentals.
In many cases, governments are taking action based on residents’ complaints.
Ferrysburg mayor Dan Ruiter said is that is definitely the case in his city.
“(People are) getting sick and tired of having issues around their neighborhoods,” Ruiter said.
Click here to submit story ideas.