News Story

City Demands Vacation Renters’ Data; Homeowners Question Its Security And More

‘Their rationale makes no sense’

Officials in a southwest Michigan community are requiring guests who stay at short-term rental property to submit their name, date of birth, license plate numbers and other information to the city. Homeowners who rent to them are skeptical and concerned the city can’t or won’t secure this personal information.

New Buffalo is no stranger to a conflict between municipal officials who want to restrict short-term rentals and residents who benefit from them. In May 2020, the city council imposed a licensure mandate targeting such enterprises. Council members have since imposed and extended a moratorium on additional short-term rental practices.

Now, the city is rolling out another restrictive ordinance. This one prescribes in detail conditions on renting and procedures for revoking rental permits. It also requires regular city inspections and case-by-case inspections at the city’s request.

As before, property owners must submit their own personal information to get permission to rent out their property. But the under the new regulations, tenants are also required to allow their names, dates of birth and vehicle details to be turned over to the city. Nothing in the forms created for this purpose reveal how the data will be handled or protected. Neither does the city website. For security-conscious property owners like Michael Davis, this raises a red flag.

“I do not understand why the city will not release its data collection and privacy policy,” Davis told Michigan Capitol Confidential. He’s been seeking answers more than two months.

Davis wrote a letter to city manager Darwin Watson that stated, “There is nowhere on the Reservation Summary/Collection of Personal Information Form that assures the guest how their information is collected, securely kept, what will be done with the information and how it will be destroyed.”

The answer appears to be “trust us.” The city manager responded in part by saying, “As it relates to the capturing, processing and security of data collected, the same [standard] confidentiality, integrity and assurance will be utilized.”

Gail Grosse, an enforcement official, said, “As for your concerns with the safety of providing the City of New Buffalo with rental occupant information, I assured you it would be handled securely and to the standards required.”

Davis says while many guests don’t comment, some have the same questions he asked. “I feel I owe my guests a privacy policy and an official procedure written on city letterhead or available online of how their information is being collected, stored, used and destroyed,” he told Michigan Capitol Confidential.

Short-term rental companies like Airbnb and VRBO maintain policies and procedures to secure users’ personal information, while local governments records may be easier to access.

New Buffalo Mayor John Humphrey said there have been several accounts of criminal activity in short-term rentals, including property damage and excessive alcohol and drug use. Humphrey said records of who is renting are essential for health and safety. “If we do not know who is here, we cannot adequately manage situations as they occur without the extra step of having to ID who is there.”

New Buffalo homeowner, Dan Skoczylas, is not impressed by the argument. “If you were to apply that reasoning universally, everyone who enters a grocery store would have to surrender that same information in case of theft. ... Their rationale makes no sense." Skoczylas reports other property owners are also grumbling.

City officials insist their policies are backed by “extensive study of proliferation and effects of short-term rental uses.” And the mayor has a warning for property owners who press too hard. “I would think that if you were currently fortunate enough to be operating given that controversy, you would be extra diligent in following the law, not openly challenging the City.”

This isn’t Humphrey’s first ominous warning. In a January Facebook post, he wrote that both he and the city’s attorney are keeping track of who submits open-records requests related to the controversy, noting that such information is not confidential.

In his election campaign, Humphrey promoted “restoring transparency and accountability to City Government.” Yet some homeowners looking for some of that now fear retaliation.

Some property owners looking to participate in short-term rentals are puzzled by the city’s stance. Skoczylas sums up their feelings: “In New Buffalo, and communities like that of New Buffalo, tourism is their lifeblood; chasing out short-term renters and tourists is detrimental to that economy.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.