News Story

New Buffalo’s Mayor Takes Hardball Approach To Short-Term Rentals

Humphrey's opposition to Airbnb-type home rentals there has brought two federal lawsuits

A dispute over tourism and property rights in one small Michigan community has spilled into lawsuits, revealing a mayor’s hostility toward some local residents and property owners.

John Humphrey is the mayor of New Buffalo, Michigan, a beach town on the shore of Lake Michigan and about 70 miles from Chicago. He is outspokenly opposed to allowing more homeowners there using Airbnb and similar services to provide short-term rentals.

Humphrey has increased the requirements the city imposes on homeowners who want to rent out their properties to tourists. An ordinance mandates that they obtain a permit and have a local agent available on call, ready to respond to complaints within 30 minutes. It also demands that homeowners obtain and provide to the city the name and date of birth of renters as well as the license plate number of any vehicle on their rental property.

Though Humphrey is opposed to short-term rentals, revenue from tourism is important to the local economy, and his stand has been met with a pair of federal lawsuits. One is from a property owner who claims that the mayor and the city violated her civil rights. Another suit, filed May 25, 2021, is from a group of 17 property owners who say their property rights are being violated.

The discovery process involved in the group’s lawsuit reveals a series of text messages, emails, and actions from the mayor that some residents regard as bullying. In messages and email, he disparaged some local homeowners, called for their public humiliation and took steps to invalidate one property owner’s legally obtained rental housing permit.

The city and mayor are also being sued by Laura Murray, who says her First Amendment rights were violated when she was physically removed from a city council meeting by two police officers. The officers acted at the mayor’s behest, she said, during her peaceful testimony opposing the ordinance.

Murray says she was stunned when Humphrey called her out of order, and then had her physically removed. The mayor, she says, is systemically targeting homeowners who support short-term rentals, especially those from Chicago.

In a text message to Darwin Watson, the city manager, Humphrey wrote, “But we really need to do something about this woman, because people are believing her and gonna burn this town down, at very least you need to email her go over point by point how she’s an idiot, without publicly humiliating her this will continue.”

Humphrey also expressed his appreciation for the ridicule resident Ron Watson imposed on people at the meeting. Watson, he said, had been laughing at “some of the stupidity one of them was spewing.”

In an email from Humphrey to Watson and Gail Grosse, a recently hired city ordinance officer, he called another property owner, Michael Davis, “incredibly obtuse.” Davis has filed open records requests with the city, which Humphrey called “stupid paranoia.”

Humphrey wrote that he wants to go after Davis because the city issued him rental permits for duplexes he owns in an area that is zoned for single-family homes. Humphrey admitted that the city granted the permits. But he said he would work with the city’s new legal representatives to pursue action against Davis and try to force him to restore the homes to single-family use. In the email, Humphrey said Davis may call his action retaliation, but he calls it enforcing the law.

Humphrey did not respond to an email seeking comment.

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.