Short-term rental advocates, foes work toward a deal on laws in Michigan

Michigan beach house

Lawmakers this spring convened a work group of local government advocates and representatives of the hotel and real estate industries to see if they can find a path toward a compromise on statewide short-term rental regulations. One of the biggest sticking points: whether municipalities should be allowed to use local zoning rules to decide in which neighborhoods short-term rentals are allowed to operate. (Shutterstock image)

Michigan policymakers are again working to regulate short-term rentals such as those on sites like Airbnb, as they try to balance neighborhood concerns with private property rights. 

But unlike previous attempts in Lansing, legislators are enlisting the help of groups that have fought on opposite sides of the issue.

Since the spring, a group of local government advocates, hotel representatives and real estate agents -‒ all with strong, often conflicting stances on how to manage the growing short-term rental industry -‒ has met to find middle ground. 

It’s not yet clear if they will be successful, but both sides report progress. How cities and townships use zoning rules to determine where rentals are allowed remains a sticking point. They do, however, seem to have found consensus that local governments should not be allowed to enact outright bans on short-term rentals.

On one side is the real estate industry, which supports giving homeowners expansive leeway to rent out their properties and views local restrictions as potentially dampening sales in Michigan’s second home market. 

On the other side are municipal government leaders, who want to maintain control over zoning practices and preserve neighborhood stability. Aligning with local governments is the hotel industry, which has its own stake in short-term rental policy. Hotels see Airbnb and sites like it as direct competition for hospitality dollars, and argue that people who routinely rent out their homes are engaged in a commercial enterprise and should have to pay the same industry fees hotels are saddled with.

Despite the potential for conflict, those engaged in negotiations told Bridge Magazine they feel like early talks have unfolded in a spirit of good faith, perhaps another example of an effort to seek common ground in a new era of divided government in Lansing.

“There’s been ideas we’re throwing out on the table,” said Jennifer Rigterink, a legislative associate for the Michigan Municipal League, which represents the interests of cities. “I think there’s a path, but all the different stakeholders around the table have to be willing to give something up.”

Whether they reach an agreement or not, the short-term rental industry isn’t going away. More than 7,000 Michigan residents listed their homes on Airbnb as of August 2018, per the company. Another site, Vrbo, says it has more than 10,000 vacation listings in Michigan in 2019.

In 2018, an estimated 640,000 guests booked stays through Airbnb in Michigan, and homeowners in the state who used the service earned roughly $78 million from the rentals, Allison Schraub, Airbnb’s deputy policy director, said in House committee testimony earlier this year.

Competing laws introduced

The debate over regulating short-term rentals is playing out in two competing sets of legislation in Lansing.

The first, introduced in January by Rep. Jason Sheppard, a commercial real estate agent, would forbid outright zoning bans and is supported by Airbnb. It defines a short-term rental as housing leased for fewer than 28 days at one time and, crucially, classifies it as a residential property use, not a commercial one, and would allow them in all residential zones.

Sheppard’s bill would not preclude local governments from enforcing ordinances on noise, traffic or nuisances to deal with nightmare renters, nor would it prevent towns from setting rules about occupancy or allowing local fees, such as for inspections or permits.

Sheppard, R-Temperance, did not respond to messages left with his office seeking comment.

In testimony on his bill at a House committee hearing in May, Sheppard argued that homeowners have rented second vacation homes long before sites like Airbnb were created to offset more expensive non-homestead taxes and costs incurred for a house they don’t use the entire year.

People who book short-term homestays contribute to the local economies they visit, notably in resort communities popular with tourists, Sheppard said.

“Many local units of government have shut down this practice by zoning out the use of short-term rentals completely,” he testified. “We are looking to reverse those bans today with this bill, because I believe that’s a clear violation of a personal property right.”

Airbnb declined to comment to Bridge on Sheppard’s legislation, citing the ongoing work group discussions, which it said it is not participating in.

The company paid more than $4.2 million in state use taxes to the Michigan Department of Treasury in the first year of a voluntary agreement it reached with the state, starting in July 2017, according to Airbnb. Treasury does not release information about individual taxpayers, but said in general a 6 percent use tax is applied to each nightly rental.

Sheppard’s effort is backed by Michigan Realtors, a trade association representing real estate agents in the state. The group worked with Sheppard on crafting the bill.

Prospective buyers ask real estate agents if they’re allowed to rent out the property when they’re not using it, Brian Westrin, the association’s public policy and legal affairs director, told Bridge. If the home is located in a neighborhood that a municipality has closed off to short-term rentals, he said, it creates uncertainty for potential buyers and may lead them not to buy the home.

“This idea that Realtors would want to support the second-home market, yes, absolutely, that makes good sense because that’s good for Michigan,” Westrin said. “Also, Realtors want to support people’s rights to maximize the value of their property.”

Private property rights also get invoked by opponents of Sheppard’s bill ‒ namely, the right of exasperated neighbors to be free from loud partying and trash produced by a revolving cast of renters.

Local government leaders say they’re concerned about what they view as a proliferation of people buying homes not as a secondary residence, but as an investment for the sole purpose of renting it out. Absentee owners, they argue, are less invested in renting out to responsible guests and less attuned to neighbors’ concerns. Evidence of an uptick in investment purchases is mostly anecdotal, but municipal leaders say it already has had the effect of changing the character of primarily owner-occupied neighborhoods.

In Grand Haven, city leaders surveyed property owners and occupants about short-term rentals and found that, in general, residents supported the positive impact they have on the local economy. But they also wanted them thoughtfully placed in neighborhoods, City Manager Pat McGinnis told Bridge.

In late 2016, the city released a report that led to an overhaul of a city ordinance related to short-term rentals. It allowed short-term rentals in some neighborhoods, prohibited them in another and required special use permits in still others, McGinnis said. The changes were developed with input from property owners based on the share of short-term rentals they believed their neighborhoods could support.

Local leaders like McGinnis say Sheppard’s bill is more overreach from Lansing and infringes on the ability of communities to make their own land-use decisions based on what their residents want.

“The proponents of these bills are saying, ‘You’re trying to tell people what to do with their properties.’ Well, that’s what zoning is,” McGinnis said. “It’s what supports and stabilizes property values.”

If every individual property was developed however someone wanted, with no guiding principles or rules, “you’d have a real patchwork and hodgepodge of uses in every town,” he said.

Legislators seek compromise

A bipartisan group of legislators, led by Rep. Jim Lilly, a Republican from Ottawa County’s Park Township, responded to Sheppard’s measure by introducing a separate package of bills that places specific restrictions on such rentals. It would create a statewide short-term rental registry and require operators of short-term rentals to pay the kind of state excise taxes also required of hotels, which support such things as tourism promotion and convention facilities.

The legislation would exempt homes or apartments from the regulations if they’re rented for no more than 14 days out of the year. This is intended to exclude homeowners who only sporadically rent out their homes from having to comply with the proposed rules.

Like the Sheppard package, these bills would also prevent local governments from completely banning short-term rentals from their communities.

Lilly did not respond to messages seeking comment about the bill. But Rep. Julie Brixie, a Democrat from Ingham County’s Meridian Township who cosponsored the legislation, told Bridge that short-term rentals are essentially commercial properties and should be treated as such.

“I am a big fan of local control,” said Brixie, a former township elected official, “and every community is different.”

The lobbying arm for Michigan’s hotel industry, the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, said it was involved in crafting the bills Lilly and Brixie sponsored.

Homeowners who open their homes to vacationers have disrupted the traditional hotel industry, offering travelers vacation experiences without charging the same fees hotels are legally required to pass on to guests. That’s a sore point for the lodging industry, which argues short-term rentals are essentially hotels, and so their operators should have to play by similar rules.

Last term, when Sheppard introduced a similar bill to the one this year that challenges local zoning rules, the hotel industry “was only on defense,” said Justin Winslow, the association’s president and CEO. “We got a lot more aggressive this year.”

Why? Because, Winslow said, short-term rental operators and hosts like Airbnb benefit from regional tourism marketing efforts, but don’t pay the taxes hotels do to support the larger system, Winslow said.

“I think the Airbnbs or any of these short-term rentals would benefit just as much as the hotels would on that return on investment,” he said, since the purpose of the fees is to help drive tourism and visitors to a region.

Lilly’s legislation has not been debated in a House committee hearing; Sheppard and Lilly convened the work group to find a compromise, several participants told Bridge.

Representatives of the three industries involved in the discussions say the groups remain far apart on local zoning rules.

But they are finding other areas of compromise. Westrin, of Michigan Realtors, said his association hasn’t necessarily opposed the idea of a statewide registry of short-term rentals. Rigterink, of the Michigan Municipal League, said it has compromised on language that exempts rentals of 14 days or less from regulation, even though some city leaders aren’t happy about that.

While differences remain, “we’re not going to leave the conversation,” Westrin said. “We still think it’s an important discussion to have.”

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Barry Visel
Wed, 08/21/2019 - 11:14am

I have now stayed in 3 Air B&B’s. All three were picked because they were in an area I was passing through and needed an overnight stay, along with the fact I knew they would offer an unique experience beyond the sameness of a hotel/motel (although I know a few of them can be unique too). My last overnight was 100 feet from Lake Superior, and no neighbors in sight! None of my 3 picks had anything to do with tourism brochures or convention centers, and I resent having to pay extra taxes for those operations. Just thought I’d share my experiences. Finally, I would note no Air B&B owners seem to be included in the discussions going on in Lansing...fairly typical of how these things work, unfortunately.

Melissa Hogan
Wed, 08/21/2019 - 4:50pm

I love airbnb--most choose them because we enjoy this kind of experience, much like a bed&breakfast. Hotels cannot accommodate larger groups at a decent rate, with kitchens and similar amenities, like a house can. I doubt airbnbs and b&bs will ever take away business from hotels. They served different purposes and needs. I love the off the beaten path experience, and I like to be in neighborhoods when I travel, not downtown central. For example, I would not pay $200 a night for downtown Boston, the cheapest. We found a lovely home for $65 in one of the neighborhoods. Free parking and the public transporation was cheaper than forking out $1000 plus taxes for 5 nights. We could not have visited Boston at all and dumped money into their local economy had we not had affordable lodging. (I also utilize hotels for other experiences.) This bill screams of two things to me: neighbors who worry about lodgers who will ruin their peace and quiet; and money. I encourage them all to work together and not to overly tax anyone. Most airbnbers barely make money--they are offsetting home costs and taxes already. There is much work in maintaining a space amenable to travelers. They are not a threat to a big name hotel chain. I highly encourage hotels to think outside the box in 2019 and look at how they are approaching a changing world as well. Good luck as they continue to negotiate.

Paul Jordan
Wed, 08/21/2019 - 6:49pm

I am the member of the board of an association (aka, neighborhood) organized under Michigan's Summer Resort Act. I applaud the expansion of interested parties involved in crafting HB 4554 (etc.), however the effort still leaves out important interested parties. Resort areas are particularly attractive to investors in short-term rental properties, but we lack any zoning power. What we do have are protective covenants that are part of deed restrictions.
It is important that we can continue to be able to impose reasonable regulations on short-term rentals. Our association, for example, permits only those commercial activities (including rentals) that do not result in excessive noise, traffic, or parking problems--and which have been approved by our board. We require registration of short-term rental units so as to ensure that landlords clearly communicate to their renters the behavior expectations that we have of everyone--renters and members alike.
We need to be able to continue to do this. It would also be great if all municipalities (including those like ours) could restrict short-term rentals to no more than a certain proportion of residences.
We are not anti-rental, and in fact many of us first became acquainted with our association as renters. However, we do not want so many rentals that it changes the basic character of our neighborhood.

Wed, 08/21/2019 - 9:45pm

From the article:

"Evidence of an uptick in investment purchases is mostly anecdotal, but municipal leaders say it already has had the effect of changing the character of primarily owner-occupied neighborhoods."

I'll add my anecdotal two cents from my experience in Saugatuck last summer. My wife's very large family (8 siblings!) were staying in a fantastic and huge Airbnb, next door a house was being transformed into an around-the-year, multiple use Airbnb investment property.

And of course if anyone has been to St. Joseph, there's vast swaths of investment rentals.

Perhaps instead of anecdotes, one of you crack investigative reporters at Bridge should see if there's a way to track down more specific numbers on how much investment is going that way?

Thu, 08/22/2019 - 8:19am

What I see here is the hotel industry trying to shut down what they view as competition, cities looking to horn in on personal property owners' minor profit, and snooty nimby's trying to maintain some kind of exclusivity on neighborhoods they view as all theirs. Things change, folks. That's the way the world is.
If you really want smaller government, this is where you start. Stop begging your state and local governments to be more controlling.
The property owners already pay property taxes (and income taxes in home rule cities) along with higher maintenance costs on a whole home as opposed to the one or two rooms a hotel might rent out so the hotel industry's argument that rentals should pay hotel taxes like they do is ludicrous.
I've never rented out my home through AirBnB or Vrbo but I'm considering it as an additional income stream as we travel in retirement. If we can't do that, we'll just sell and leave and the city will probably end up with someone on a lower income who is less conscientious of property maintenance.
BTW, I wouldn't have the chutzpah to tell my neighbors what to do with their property. But I get it. It is the nature of control freaks to take control. It is the duty of the rest of us to stop them.

Thu, 08/22/2019 - 10:18am

The hotel industry is trying to hold ono the reins, yes, but Airbnb is contributing to the housing crisis by incentivizing property owners to hyper-commodify their homes and apartments. Pick any major city, and you'll find apartments that sit empty 4 days a week because their owners have turned them into quick investments. It's a logical development that we would expect from late stage capitalst hell we exist in, but that doesn't mean it's a good thing

Agnosticrat 2.0
Sun, 08/25/2019 - 8:20am

I always find it amusing when free market capitalists look toward regulations to save their skins when faced with competition brought on by technology.

Sue J
Sat, 09/14/2019 - 7:57pm

Unhosted short term rentals are not currently allowed in my township, but since the are operating, the zoning ordinance is being reviewed to see if they should be allowed in some districts, with regulations. I live 50 feet away from one and across the street from another in a small, 20 home neighborhood. I purchased my home, followed all zoning rules when updating and making improvements, and looked forward to living with neighbors after years on acreage. Yes, the unlawful Airbnbs have changed my neighborhood, taken affordable housing out of the scarce residential stock, and adds a constant stream of strangers in a family neighborhood. Living in a very hot tourist district, it was nice to have a place to get away from the hub-bub of vacationers. So, yes, I am a NIMBY. Zoning has always been about balancing property rights for the benefit of the community.

Lori Ruiz
Fri, 10/25/2019 - 7:33pm

I have rental properties and one that I lease as a short term rental at a lake house, a summer home a lake I grew up on but could no longer afford to buy on due to the ridiculously high prices on the lake that my grandmother cleared for a fishing spot and a small cottage back in the day when prices were still affordable for the local folks. I purchased the property and plan to live in it fulltime once I retire. In the meantime I have been able to support this home with the short term rentals of today, by the way the same ones we had when I was a kid at all the local lakes that is until wealthy buyers drove the price out of reach for most of the locals. By using this platform I have been able to go back to that lake I loved so much. That was until I got the letter from the local zoning authority advising me to stop due to the zoning law for residential properties. I had to ask myself what is the difference in a 30 day rental property lease and a short term lease. I pay business taxes defined by the IRS on the residential properties I own? By definition should they not be allowed in residential areas aren't they businesses? Short term or long term we provide residences in exchange for money. Business or residential?

Marcie B
Sun, 12/08/2019 - 10:56am

The hotel industry's argument that rentals should pay hotel taxes like they do is ludicrous. In my township, hotels pay property taxes at 32.4802 mils and I pay 45.0302 mils on my non-homesteaded property. We both pay USE tax to the State of Michigan on short term stats. I would argue that local government, on an assessment basis, likely brings in more money in tax assessments than they would make in hotel taxes on our stays.