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Commission debate over Airbnb continues

On November 12, a variety of citizens came forward to express their opinions on local homesharing.
Erica Curry VanEe stands with her petition of over 1,000 signatures against the Airbnb regulations.

Erica Curry VanEe stands with her petition of over 1,000 signatures against the Airbnb regulations. /Courtesy of Erica Curry VanEe

Recent debate in Grand Rapids has centered around Airbnb, a website that connects visitors in Grand Rapids with homeowners who rent a room in their home. This debated topic helped to encourage a full room at the City Commission public hearing on November 12. 

On October 22, the Commission decided on a plan to vote on an ordinance that would make it necessary for Airbnb hosts to obtain a zoning permit and a home occupation business license. After much public interest, the vote was delayed until the commission could hear from the public.

The City Commission was able to hear some of those opinions on November 12 when a total of 18 citizens came forward to voice their opinions in front of the commission. These citizens ranged from current Airbnb hosts and guests to neighbors who worry about Airbnb's possible impact.

One of those Airbnb hosts is a homeowner named Scott Coy. He believes that the regulations and zoning ordinances do not fit the scale of the business and would be difficult for homeowners to recuperate the initial fees.

"It feels like we are little league baseball players being told to play by the same rules as the major leagues," says Coy.

The economic implications of Airbnb guests are important to Karen Coy, who has hosted on Airbnb. 

"They've done four different studies and they've found that Airbnb guests not only stay longer but they actually spend more money. The tourism dollars are going beyond the downtown area. It's spreading into the neighborhoods," says Karen Coy. "Airbnb has been in Grand Rapids and we have not found evidence of even one complaint. So other than the fact that it's illegal, it actually seems to be working pretty well."

Rachel Lee, director of the East Hill Council of Neighbors, says the money guests are willing to spend could help the city and local businesses.

"East Hills is a thriving, diverse and walkable section of our city neighborhood. Visitors are attracted to the historic character an numerous options for dining and entertainment options. This is keeping the dollars in our neighborhood and supporting the local economy," says Lee.

Local mother, Lisa Wieringa and her daughter Tara, who host in their home, have found the experience rewarding.

"We act as ambassadors in our own hometown," says Wieringa. "We are just a family opening our home."

There have been concerns brought up by residents that mostly center around Airbnb's effect on neighborhoods.

"I'm missing something. I hear about how good it is for the homeowner, but they've left out the neighborhood," says Barbara Hekhuis, a homeowner in the Heritage Hill district. "I'm invested in my neighborhood. It's where I live. It's where I walk my dog down the street. It's where I meet my neighbors to have coffee on their porches. I did not buy my home in a commercial district. Turning my neighborhood into a commercial hotel district is very offensive to me."

Another homeowner, Pamela Lucas, agrees with this statement and urges for precise and strict regulations that apply to all.

"Ordinances are written for the benefit of the many. The B&B and Home Occupation ordinances were written not only to assure safety for lodging guests, but also to protect the character and quality of neighborhoods in which those uses occur," says Lucas. "Contrary to the claims of some, B&B uses do not have zero impact: they increase human density, they increase traffic and they increase noise."

Others who have not taken a strong stance either way include the Heritage Hill Association, who urges more research and participation. 

"We believe the City Commission should further explore the implications and carefully examine any issues before taking any final actions," says Vicki Hudson, a representative of the Board of Directors of the Heritage Hill Association.

Ending the night was Erica Curry VanEe, who started a petition against the Airbnb regulations. In five days she got over 1,000 signatures in support of Airbnb hosts to continue without zoning permits. 

"We've been sharing our home for the last four years. We don't charge. Folks that are doing this aren't motivated by money. It's much more about the sharing economy and hospitality," says VanEe We have over 1,000 people, all residents of Grand Rapids, that have said please delay this vote. Please stop and think what it means."

Voting on the decision to require Airbnb hosts to obtain zoning ordinances and permits will take place next week.

"There has been some lively debate on this topic," says Mayor George Heartwell. "Perhaps unparalleled since urban chicken."

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