Battle over Airbnb brewing in Lansing

A room advertised for rent on Airbnb.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Bills before the Michigan Legislature would prevent local communities from drafting special regulations when it comes to short-term rentals like those offered through Airbnb.

Supporters say it is about property rights but local officials say it takes away local control.

The short-term rental industry — often referenced with the name of popular booking website Airbnb — gives budget-conscious travelers a less costly place to stay.

Some communities don’t want neighborhood homes turned into vacation homes and have banned such short-term rentals. Grand Rapids allows them, but has significant regulations that include inspections and notifications and fees of between $200 and $400.

But that could change. A pair of bills — House Bill 4503 and Senate Bill 329 — introduced to the Legislature this spring would mandate that short-term rentals be allowed statewide without any restriction.

Groups like the libertarian Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Michigan Association of Realtors support the bills. The realtors association has been running radio commercials that warn about affordable vacation housing disappearing and property rights being trampled. The Mackinac Center bills the debate the as “Michigan’s next property rights battle.”

But Suzanne Schulz, Grand Rapids’ planning director, says the issue is really about Lansing taking more control away from local governments.

“It’s really commercialization of neighborhoods and it can really have an effect on the livability and quality of life in those neighborhoods,” Schulz said.

The Michigan Municipal League has come out against the bills. Schulz, Michigan lodging interests and other municipal officials will be in Lansing Wednesday to voice their opposition.

“People say it’s a property rights issue for some, that, ‘Well, it’s my property. Can’t I do with it what I want?’ But what about the neighbor next door? What about their rights? They bought into a single-family neighborhood,” Schulz said. “They’re not expecting parties every weekend, they’re not expecting that you’re going to have 10 people in the house that is being rented out by an out-of-town landlord.”

She said in places like Florida where similar legislation is already in place, real estate experts buy up multiple homes, transforming neighborhoods from residential to a row of vacation rentals.

“We’ve already seen impacts in Heritage Hill where people want that unique experience, that authentic urban experience when they come to visit Grand Rapids,” Schulz said. “We’ve had neighbors say, ‘You know, this is where I live. This isn’t Disney World.’”

She said it’s not about keeping out small, single-room rentals, but rather those that seek to turn homes in family neighborhoods into weekend party houses.

Heritage Hill homeowner Paul Gorley has the kind of Airbnb offering that the city likes: a single room in a big house for people looking to stay in the city.

“People are coming here that could not afford to come here otherwise because the hotels and the B&Bs are so expensive for the average person,” Gorley said. “They are not sitting in my house. They’re spending money.”

He said he sees a need for regulation, but Grand Rapids regulations seem to go too far.

“They don’t do that for a regular rental in the city, which I think is interesting,” he said.

This legislation has been proposed in previous legislative sessions and did not get too far. This time, there appears to be a real battle on tap at the intersection of the rights of individual homeowners and the communities in which they reside.