Icebreaking: Conversation starters for rental code cited

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Houghton Councilor Mike Needham talks about Planning Commission discussions about updates to the city’s master plan Wednesday.

HOUGHTON — The Houghton City Council gave the Planning Commission the go-ahead Wednesday to discuss changes to the city’s policies on rental properties as part of its master plan revision this year.

A handout provided to council members and the public at the council meeting outlined three interrelated issues, as well as the short-term rentals facilitated through sites such as Airbnb.

Many neighborhood residents are wary of rentals in single-family neighborhoods, as evidenced by the amount of concern at public hearings when license requests are brought up.

Some of those rentals are driven by the continued growth of Michigan Technological University. Demand has also been high for multi-unit developments built close to campus.

“It’s very critical to this city that we have good plans,” said Councilor Mike Needham, who also sits on the Planning Commission. “The city’s going to grow. We’re growing on our own. The university’s growing. Rental housing is an inevitability because of that, and how we manage it going forward is going to be incredibly important.”

Houghton had about 1,300 single-family homes as of last fall. Of those, 301 are rentals, accounting for 1,374 beds. Of the 101 other rental properties in the city, 82 are multifamily units with 1,862 beds, and 19 are fraternity or sorority houses.

A discussion at the Planning Commission meeting yielded several ideas outlined in the material:

•Ban new rentals in R-1, or in certain R-1 areas.

•Rezone targeted areas to increase opportunities for development of denser housing.

•Revisit zoning ordinances’ limitations to look for common-sense changes that may help.

•Look at parking. One of the main obstacles to new builds and redevelopment is the need for parking space.

•Continue and increase code enforcement of all properties.

City Manager Eric Waara said the discussion of the items didn’t mean they were going to be included in the eventual plan.

“I’m not saying they’re all good,” he said. “They’re conversation starters.”

Airbnb offerings last week showed eight properties available, two of which are in licensed units. The city has been contacting the other properties to let them know a license is necessary.

Councilor Buck Foltz said if the council doesn’t address the rental issue soon, the community could turn into “one big rental.”

“I think we are literally losing west Houghton as a community,” he said. “If we do nothing, we’re going to start to see people who have traditionally raised families here walk away because they realize the value of their property’s going to go down.”