East Lansing rental regs are progressive and necessary: Beware of ‘reform’


(The writers are members of the East Lansing City Council.) 

East Lansing residents should take note of a ballot initiative underway that, if successful, would overturn the rental regulations that have served the city well for the last 25 years.  

Our rental regulations rely on a long-standing and progressive definition of a “family” in the city code. The petition being circulated proposes a charter amendment prohibiting the City from using this definition to regulate rental properties.  

If the proposed amendment is adopted, it will overturn the “rental restriction overlay districts” that limit new rental licenses in many of our neighborhoods and the policy that no more than two unrelated persons can live as rental tenants in a single-family dwelling. Our rental occupancy rate, which exceeded 60% in the last census, will rise sharply again. 

When these regulations began to take shape in the mid-1990s, neighborhoods close to campus were rapidly converting into rentals. Families were fleeing the noise and congestion, which affected nearby businesses. The children left with their families, which affected the school system. It was a downward spiral, and the proposed amendment would take us right back to that time. 

Our regulations were carefully designed to stem this tide of conversions of single-family homes into rentals. They were also designed to protect the growing number of renters, by requiring landlords to follow building and safety codes. Finally, they were designed to accommodate families of all shapes, sizes and configurations to avoid interfering with family life for those who wanted to stay in East Lansing. 

In a recent article (https://www.lansingcitypulse.com/stories/what-constitutes-family-east-lansing-homeowners-petitioning-for-reform,94387), City Pulse described the proposed charter amendment in misleading and inaccurate terms, accepting the proponents’ characterization as an effort at “reform.” In fact, the proposed amendment is not about reform at all. 

The key provision of the proposed amendment reads, “The City shall not restrict in any way relationships of persons living together as a household or residing in a home … .” That may sound desirable, but it preempts our definition of family, throwing our rental regulations into chaos.  

Our definition of family is broadly inclusive and something to be proud of, not preempt. A wide array of legal and biological relationships can be a family — and so can a “domestic unit,” which is any relationship “having a distinct domestic character or a demonstrable and recognizable bond.” A domestic unit might include unmarried couples with or without children, adopted or stepchildren, distant relatives, friends convalescing from an injury or any other committed or mutually supportive relationship you can imagine.  

A rental license is expressly not required for live-in caregivers, live-in childcare providers, live-in housekeepers, exchange students, estate representatives, visiting clergy or house sitters. The house-sitting exception, in particular, accommodates sabbaticals, military deployments, and other similar travel. Again, our regulations were designed to be accommodating so homeowners can live their lives without interference from the government. 

For a non-family group to live together in a single-family dwelling, the dwelling must be a licensed rental. Why? To keep tenants safe. A rental license requires annual inspections to ensure that landlords follow building and safety codes. Family members have obligations to one another and can take care of themselves without this oversight. The proposed amendment would allow any number of unrelated persons to live in a dwelling without a homeowner present and without a rental license or safety inspections, creating unregulated and dangerous living conditions for tenants. 

Our rental regulations are flexible, forward-thinking and effective. They’ve stabilized neighborhoods, kept people safe and made it possible for a diverse mix of people to benefit from living close to campus and downtown.  

If they go away, the intense pressures of a Big 10 community on the local housing market will remain and will determine the outcome. East Lansing will change a lot in a short time to the benefit of no one but landlords. Beware of solutions in search of a problem. 

We encourage readers interested in learning more to review the at-a-glance information sheet on the webpage describing East Lansing’s rental regulations. 


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