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Status of the sharing economy: Airbnb celebrates one year of homesharing in Grand Rapids

Erica Curry Van Ee

It's here, it's on the rise, and even Hillary has an opinion on it. It's the sharing economy, and it's changing the way people commute to work, stay in new cities, and grab a ride home from the bar. Wonder about the state of the sharing economy in West Michigan? Read on this week for a look at how Airbnb is faring in Grand Rapids in the second of a three-part Rapid Growth series.
It's been nearly one year since Grand Rapids passed its Airbnb legislation allowing homeowners to share their spaces with traveling renters. A popular piece of the sharing economy, home-sharing provides professionals, wanderers and possible residents the opportunity to visit a city without breaking the bank. For those who enjoy staying in someone's home, receiving personal recommendations and making new friends, Airbnb renters are increasingly more common worldwide. Favoring this uniquely tailored experience over a hotel chain, fans of this home-share method are raving about their experiences—all while providing extra income for the homeowner.

But how has Airbnb fared in Grand Rapids? What obstacles have home-sharers faced as they lobby for this unique method? And what is the future for home-sharing for Grand Rapidians? One home-sharing supporter and community activist discussed the complexity of the issue as the city prepares to review and possibly revise its legislation.

"It's important to have a less expensive alternative to a hotel," says Erica Curry Van Ee, home-sharer, founder of Urban Curry Consulting, LLC and Grand Rapids planning commissioner. Since registering her own one-bedroom loft rental with Airbnb in September of 2014, Van Ee has relished the experience of meeting new people, introducing them to the city and customizing their stay in her Union Square condo.
"It has been amazing," she says, "We have made lifetime friendships." By renting to travelers for just one night or weeks at a time, Van Ee has met honeymooners, married couples on their anniversary, professionals based in two cities and potential residents considering job opportunities.

By providing champagne for special occasions, introducing her renters to local artists or even driving them to their morning marathon, Van Ee's goal is "to demonstrate a new model of hospitality," she says.
Unlike staying at a hotel, she argues, the AirBnB experience provides a sense of belonging and comfort. "We want to be welcoming. We want to be inclusive," she adds. Because she's also seeking to promote and support her community, Van Ee donates 25 percent of her proceeds to local charities such as Well House, Steepletown Neighborhood Services and HQ Runaway & Homeless Youth Drop-In Center, just to name a few. 

Though Van Ee's personal Airbnb experience has been overwhelmingly positive, she and others have faced challenges working with the city to establish legislation for this home-sharing method. Though she originally planned on renting out her home in the summer of 2013 when Airbnb first become popular in Grand Rapids, Van Ee and others were halted by proposed legislation that would criminalize one-night rentals as a misdemeanor in the city. By quickly organizing Airbnb supporters, Van Ee and others developed a petition against the bill and collected 1000 signatures by November of that year that requested a study committee to review the city's policies for short-term rentals.

Thus, a committee was formed of city commissioners, traditional bed and breakfast (BnB) owners and residents, and the six-month planning process of listening to the community and drafting the city's policy began. What followed in August 2014 was legislation that allowed for Airbnb rentals, but with many limitations that Van Ee and others viewed as too restrictive. Home-sharers were thus allowed to rent a one-room space, provided that the property is owner-occupied, neighbors within 300 ft. are notified and no more than two adults (possibly with children) occupy a room.

"The regulatory process is so much more rigorous and intense than it needs to be for an owner-occupied low impact use," says Van Ee, noting that traditional BnB's, as well as long-term landlords require less regulation and fewer inspections (Airbnb home-sharers must submit to police and fire inspections, as well as pay a fee of $301, each year). In addition, the city decided to distribute just 200 licenses annually, only 13 of which were issued in the past year, according to the city's licensing division.
Despite these challenges, Van Ee is grateful for the opportunity to participate in home-sharing, "They actually did open the door for us," she says. However, after one year, "It's time to review it," she adds.
Van Ee and others have formed Homesharers for Grand Rapids, a group that lobbies for what they deem a low risk activity that benefits tourism, hospitality, entrepreneurialism and philanthropy, and is best practiced in owner-occupied spaces, and she continues to work toward fewer regulations and more home-sharers. As the city approaches its one-year anniversary of the legislation, supporters of Airbnb, including the nonprofit ArtPrize (which officially announced its support in a June 2014 letter), hope for increased acceptance of the practice and fewer obstacles to licensing.

Looking forward, Van Ee is excited for the potential for Airbnb to increase traffic to Grand Rapids and help it become a thriving metropolis. "We're part of the revitalization," she says. By removing the barrier with low-cost, short-term rentals, home-sharers are opening their doors to visitors of all types, showcasing how welcoming and exciting the city can be.

Lauren F. Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at www.emptyframecreative.com, and she can be reached at lauren@emptyframecreative.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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