Grand Rapids considers short-term rentals

People looking to travel for cheap are increasingly turning to the option of short-term room rentals to avoid higher costs associated with hotels, and Grand Rapids’ city leaders are looking at ordinances surrounding the issue.

One of these programs is Nightswapping, created by Cosmopolit Home, which is based in New York, Lyon, London and Sydney. The home exchange program allows people to travel around the world without having to pay for rooms.

According to the Cosmopolit Home website, the program allows anyone to be both a host and a guest. Members can swap homes for a short period of time, or they can be a guest in a member’s home while the family is there.

Mike Sciarini, a hospitality and tourism management professor at Grand Valley State University, said Nightswapping is one of the many “alternative forms of lodging” that exist throughout the world. Sciarini said Nightswapping is similar to couch surfing, which began in the early 2000s, and other international home-sharing companies such as BeWelcome. These housing options go beyond “commercially licensed operations,” Sciarini said.

Airbnb is another venue that has emerged as a major home-sharing organization since its inception in 2008. Its website calls it an opportunity that provides “unique accommodations” for travelers, connecting them with opportunities in 33,000 cities and 192 countries. Airbnb has also hired a head of global hospitality in an attempt to reach its goal of becoming a leader in the industry, according to a blog from The Wall Street Journal.

“The jury is still out on whether Airbnb is a relative flash in the pan or a long-term player in the world of lodging,” Sciarini said. “Assuming the licensing, regulation and taxation issues get resolved—and those battles may be waged at the local level—my guess is that there is a more than adequate supply of travelers, present and future, who will be willing to use a platform like Airbnb to book accommodations.”

According to a November MLive article, “(Grand Rapids) city leaders on Tuesday, Nov. 19, nixed a ban on advertising short-term room rentals” and will discuss regulations for Airbnb as well as area bed-and-breakfasts. The advertising ban was proposed as an addition to the current regulations for B&Bs in Grand Rapids, making it a crime to advertise without a license. However, it was not implemented because it lacked support from Airbnb users and employees.

Airbnb customers are seeing advertisements for short-term room rentals in Grand Rapids averaging $50 per night. Homeowners have to pay around $2,000 to get the required zoning permit and business license to rent their space legally. Plus, the Planning Commission has to approve of the plan before a homeowner can proceed.

There is also debate surrounding the issue of how traditional B&Bs fit into these regulations.

Jane Lovett is one B&B owner who can attest to some of the issues. Lovett is the only employee at Peaches, a local B&B she started 20 years ago.

“Owning a B&B is like being a prisoner in your own home,” Lovett said. “But the reality is you’d better like cleaning bathrooms, doing dishes and making beds.”

Although it keeps her busy all day, she said she still enjoys the work.

Lovett said the ruling that allows advertising for Airbnb and other sites is only temporary and that these short-term rentals are still illegal, with or without advertising. She explained that, although these organizations charge for business, they do not affect her B&B. She added that Grand Rapids needs to get more of these in the area.

“Innkeepers actually do a similar thing, either swapping nights when they’re not busy or swapping for a week or so to do each other’s business,” Lovett said.

As for the city ordinances, Lovett said the Planning Committee needs to approve a special land use permit in order for a B&B to be legally sanctioned in a neighborhood. In addition, she said a business license and a yearly inspection are required. Lovett said these standards are necessary costs because they are there to protect guests.

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