City Staff Urges Citizens to Contact Legislators on Short-Term Rental Bill

Wednesday, May 1, 2019, 7:10 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

The City of East Lansing used a mass email list yesterday to urge East Lansing residents to take action on a bill set to be considered today by the Michigan House Local Government and Municipal Finance Committee.

That bill, HB 4606, is aimed at stopping local governments from enacting particular kinds of zoning regulation on short-term residential rentals, like those arranged through Airbnb.

The scene is birthing two controversies here in East Lansing – one over the bill itself, and another over the use of local taxpayer resources to push citizens to speak out on one particular side of a partisan debate.

The bill proposes a requirement that cities treat residential rentals like owner-occupied residential properties in terms of zoning.

HB 4606 is designed to allow residential property owners around the state to rent them out, including for less than 28 days at a time, by stopping municipalities (like the City of East Lansing) from treating such residential properties as if they are commercial or in need of “special use or conditional use permit or procedure different from that required for other dwellings in the same zone.”

The law, if passed, would still allow cities to limit rental of a property zoned for a single-family to a single-family use. So, for example, an ordinarily-owner-occupied single family house in East Lansing could only be short-term rented for the same use (occupancy by no more than two unrelated individuals).

But the bill would effectively outlaw overlay districts designed to stop conversion of owner-occupied houses to rentals.

The bill would also require that municipalities apply “on a consistent basis” the same zoning rules “to rental and owner-occupied residences” in terms of noise, advertising, residency limits, requirements for dwelling inspections and inspection fees, taxes, and so on.

East Lansing’s rental registration, licensing, property maintenance, and other codes could still be applied to all rentals, because these are not zoning issues.

The Michigan Municipal League and the Michigan Realtors are going head-to-head on this.

In the matter of HB 4606, the Michigan Realtors are “pro,” and the Michigan Municipal League is “anti.”

The Michigan Realtors describe their organization as “an integrated advocacy and communications force for the real estate professionals of our State.” They generally want property owners to be able to do what they want with their properties, and that includes in terms of rentals.

The Michigan Municipal League promotes the interests and rights of Michigan municipalities. A major issue for the League is “preemption” – attempts by State-level elected officials to limit what governments and voters at the local level can decide and do.

These two organizations have been on opposite sides of this issue.

Two emails sent by the City yesterday promoted only one side – the side the League has taken.

Just before 11 a.m. yesterday, Emily Gordon, employed by the City to function as Assistant to City Council, sent to the Council of Neighborhood Presidents and others two emails.

The first email forwarded a message from Jennifer Rigterink, a Michigan Municipal League lobbyist. The subject line stated “ACTION NEEDED” on HB 4606, and explained why “The bill sponsor and the local government committee members need to hear from and see affected stakeholders from across [the] state opposing this legislation.”

Rigterink explained how to weigh in against the legislation, and urged recipients of her message to tell others to do so as well.

The second City of East Lansing email message from Gordon forwarded more material from Rigterink, this time a blog post. Again, Rigertink called on readers to act to oppose the bill, which she called an “attack on local democracy!”

In one of the messages to people in East Lansing, Gordon wrote, “I have been asked to send this to you all, as it is a pressing issue.” She did not say who asked her to send it.

The City did not use its resources to circulate the opposing view, such as that of the Michigan Realtors.

Gordon has not responded to a message from ELi asking who asked her to send this material out.

Members of City Council and the City Manager have also not responded to a message from ELi asking if any of them had asked Gordon to send it out, or if they knew who had.

Council member Shanna Draheim is employed by the Michigan Municipal League as the Director of Policy Development.

The Council campaign of member Aaron Stephens was supported by the PAC of the Michigan Realtors.

Using City resources to favor one side is probably not illegal.

In 2016, City Manager George Lahanas was found to have violated the Michigan Campaign Finance Act when he used his column in the City’s Dialog newsletter to encourage voters to vote “yes” on an East Lansing ballot initiative.

But a review by ELi of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, the Home Rule City Act, the East Lansing City Charter, East Lansing’s Ethics Code, and Michigan Act 169 of 1976 (which governs Political Activities by Public Employees) does not turn up any reason to think what Gordon did – by using public resources to promote one side of a partisan issue – is illegal.

Is it ethical? I put that question to Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner, a long-time Michigan political consultant.

Grebner responded, “It is in poor taste, but it is probably not illegal. It just seems wrong to use public resources to push to lobby the legislature” on one side of an issue.

The Michigan Realtors have not responded to request for comment.

The House Local Government and Municipal Finance Committee is set to take up the bill today (May 1st) at noon in Room 521 of the Anderson House Office Building. That’s located at 124 N. Capitol Avenue in Lansing.

 

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