News Story

South Haven battle on short-term rentals pits property rights against community

West Michigan city is popular among visitors, to the chagrin of its leadership

The city council of South Haven, Michigan, is in the middle of a fight between owners of short-term rentals and residents who want this business practice restricted.

At a June 20 meeting, the council voted to approve the draft of a survey it commissioned from the Kercher Center for Social Research at Western Michigan University. The survey will gather input from residents and business owners about how short-term rentals are affecting the South Haven community.

This survey comes in the midst of rising tension between opponents and proponents of short-term rentals.

Matt Weber, a short-term rental owner, says several members of the city council have handled the issue well, but others, he says, have been influenced by misinformation.

A previous survey sent to registered voters by the group Neighborhoods Need Neighbors claimed that 80% of residents were in favor of limiting short-term rentals in some way, but this statistic was not found in its results.

The results, based off of 550 responses, showed that 73% of respondents think there should be restrictions on the number of rentals on a street or neighborhood. It also found that 59% believe there are not enough permanent residents, and 51% believe single-family residential districts should not have any more short-term rentals. The city council had commissioned the Kercher Center to conduct the survey.

Neighborhoods Need Neighbors also claims that South Haven has far more short-term rentals than other coastal towns in Michigan. The group says there are only 30 short-term rentals in Ludington. A review of AirBnB, however, shows over 200 there.

“The number of short-term rentals we have in this community is more than any two towns combined along the coast,” Councilman Joe Reeser said at a May 2 meeting. “It’s one thing to have 200 short-term rentals, it’s another when you have a hundred in a two-block area. I’m exaggerating a little, but people are surrounded by this. There’s no more community in some neighborhoods.”

At that meeting, Reeser attempted to have the council take a vote to impose a moratorium on short-term rentals, even though such a vote was not on the agenda. This meant the public was not given notice ahead of time.

“Somehow we’ve got to take a breath and stop this while we can all discuss it,” Reeser said at the meeting.

Reeser had previously fought a moratorium, but felt that the issue is too pressing to not act.

Although the council did not take a vote, short-term rental owner Weber said the motion was an attempt to disregard protocols, which reflects the influence of a small portion of the community. The group Neighborhoods Need Neighbors is particularly vocal at city council meetings, he said.

“As a short term rental homeowner, I don’t even feel comfortable going to city council meetings because they create an environment where we don’t feel welcome,” Weber told Michigan Capitol Confidential. “When I go, I feel outnumbered by about 20 to 1, and I’ve gotten glares and looks after saying that I own a short-term rental. It’s an uncomfortable situation, but city council needs to hear our side, or we’re not given a voice.”

Todd Heinrich, a member of Neighborhoods Need Neighbors, said the group aims to minimize the negative economic and social effects of short-term rentals.

“We’ve been pretty pushy, saying to city council, ‘Please do something, please do something, please do something,’” Heinrich said. “It’s as simple as the three words: neighborhoods need neighbors. They don’t need businesses. When houses sit empty, and no one uses them for eight or nine months of the year, they become economic black holes.”

At the council’s May 16 meeting, Reeser asked to have a discussion of short-term rentals added to the agenda so that the Planning Commission would be forced to act on it.

This did not happen, as other council members pointed out that the Planning Commission needs more information before a productive discussion can take place.

Short-term rentals are the second priority for the South Haven City Council in the upcoming fiscal year, behind only affordable housing.

“What is lost in this conversation is that short-term rental owners are families,” Weber said. “My wife and I saved for many years for land, construction, and furnishings. We wanted to have a property in a town we loved. Certainly there needs to be a cap on short-term rentals. If you don’t have residents in a town it feels like a transient community and not a town. We need to find a healthy medium: a flourishing town that recognizes the importance of the tourism industry. I can understand the concern from local residents, but we need to work on solutions together.”

Reeser declined to comment for this article.

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.