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In the age of Airbnb, Michigan beach towns try to balance renters and residents

Vintage postcard "Greetings from Grand Haven, Michigan."
Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection
Wikimedia Commons
Grand Haven City Council voted to limit the number of short-term rentals in certain neighborhoods.

This time of year a lot of people start thinking about summer vacations. If you’re like many Michiganders, when you’re planning a week or two off, you might find a cottage or a beach house to rent online. Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway are a few of the most popular short-term rental websites.

However, those relaxing summer getaways are causing stress in many of Michigan’s tourist destinations. Local residents say the stream of renters is ruining their neighborhoods. But people who rent out their properties say they have a right to make some income and they’re helping the local economy.

One of the communities dealing with the issue is Grand Haven, which has a year-round population of nearly 11,000 and sees a huge spike in the summer. City Manager Pat McGinnis says there are about 250 short-term rental properties in Grand Haven, not including owner-occupied properties with individual rooms for rent.

On April 24, the city council approved an ordinance that added to existing rules about which districts can have short-term rentals. The ordinance does not reduce the number of rentals. People who already rent out their properties are grandfathered in.  

McGinnis spoke with Michigan Radio's Doug Tribou about how the growth of the short-term rental market has impacted the Lake Michigan community.

Here are some highlights from the conversation.

On why city council decided to regulate short-term rentals:

"The city, back in 2007, amended our ordinances to allow short-term rentals in a couple of residential districts thinking that there was some level of capacity that those neighborhoods could absorb without really changing the character of the neighborhoods.

"Starting in maybe 2015, it became evident that we were seeing dramatic increases of these short-term rentals. Close to 20% of the buildings in these residential neighborhoods were these short-term rentals, so city council decided it was time to take a close look."

What Grand Haven residents have told the city:

"The feedback that we got was overwhelmingly from year-round residents saying that the short-term rentals were OK. For the most part, the surveys were [saying] that they weren’t really too troubling, but the numbers were getting such that maybe it was time to put a cap on it.

"We’re still going to be a primary destination for folks in the summertime. We’re just not going to allow these residential neighborhoods [to become all rentals].... That residential character of the neighborhood is part of the charm, part of the reason these short-term rentals are successful in these neighborhoods. So, we think we’re retaining that, too. So, I think we’re somewhat protecting the viability and value of those vacation properties."

McGinnis on his hope for the short-term rental policies:

"The best possible result will be a continuation of this very attractive balance. I encourage you, Doug, come on over and see Grand Haven and what it looks like in the summertime because it is really an idyllic situation. These folks will rent a property in a neighborhood area, and they get to know a little bit about the neighborhood and some of the neighbors and the neighbors get to meet somebody new and different.

"It’s very busy. It’s a little hectic on the weekends. Things get a little loud and wild, but it’s fun. It feels like summer in Michigan on Lake Michigan. I think we’ve found the sweet spot in Grand Haven, and in five years if we’re still in that sweet spot, I think we will have decided that we found that proper balance."

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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