East Lansing fair housing reform is needed to protect basic civil rights


(This guest column was written by retired Ingham Court Judge James R. Giddings; attorneys Eric Williams and Patrick Levine Rose; Nell Kuhnmuench, J.D.; and veterinarian Kath Edsall.) 

A recent City Pulse story (April 24) accurately described how East Lansing homeowners can face large fines or misdemeanor penalties for inviting long-term guests to live in their homes. 

East Lansing defines most unrelated persons occupying or living in a home after 30 days as tenants. A group of residents proposed the following charter amendment to fix the problem. Our ballot language reads:  

"The Amendment states the City shall not restrict relationships of persons living together as a household or residing in homes, or interfere with rights of owners to live with persons of their choice, so long as they are not rent-paying tenants. The City will make zoning and rental records public. The City must give advance notice of housing penalties. Repeat violations of zoning and rental laws can be a misdemeanor if knowing and intentional. Persons in federal service get a house-sitting exemption from rental laws. The City shall use state law to define "renter, "rental unit," "lease," "tenant" and ‘occupancy."  

 In response, Council member Erik Altmann wrote an April 29 letter stating our amendment "eliminates" the progressive and inclusive definition of family in the City Code. That statement is not true. We emailed Altmann and other city officials on April 17 with our final amendment language, which keeps the current definition of family in the city code. In fact, our amendment strengthens homeowners' ability to decide whom to invite into their homes. Altmann wants to keep a law criminalizing those choices.  

The City Code presumes any occupant living in the home over 30 days is a tenant if the individual does not fall within the city's narrow definition of family or domestic unit whether they pay rent or not. Homeowners in some neighborhoods, but not all, can apply for rental licenses for such guests — at a cost of $1,550. In other parts of the city, no rental license can be obtained to allow long-term guests to live in your home.  

We heard from East Lansing homeowners who cannot help a friend in need under current law. A friend may be trying to escape an abusive spouse. An unrelated, unemployed friend may need a short-term place to live. A family may need a place to live after losing a home to foreclosure. An unrelated East Lansing High School student or a refugee with asylum status may need a place to live. Homeowners cannot invite visiting scholars to live as guests. The city currently criminalizes owners and these relationships and subjects them to a fine. The amendment fixes this by allowing unrelated persons who do not pay rent to be lawful guests. 

There are narrow exceptions that allow guests to live in homes without a rental license for clergy, prescribed caregivers, exchange students, domestic servants paid 40 hours a week, estate representatives, etc. But these narrow exceptions do not cover the above situations and many others.  

Altmann also misrepresented our proposed amendment when he wrote it that "will allow investors to gobble up homes to turn them into student rentals." Our amendment does not change city laws that now prevent single-family homes from being turned into student rentals. Our amendment does not eliminate the city's rental housing license restrictions on persons who pay rent to live in a house. 

What Altmann is advocating is continuing to criminalize residents' choice to live with long-term guests who pay no rent. Voters are smart enough to resist fear-mongering by city officials who warn of an explosion of student rentals across the city. We can protect our civil right to decide whom we live with while not charging rent. The ballot proposal will not change much in East Lansing's current zoning law. It is one small step toward a more progressive and inclusive city. This proposal recognizes the rights of property owners to have houseguests of their choice in their homes without being asked to pay thousands in fines to an intrusive city government.  



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