Traverse City is a booming place every summer, but in the off-season it’s not uncommon for local residences to sit in the dark for weeks or months, especially since many recently acquired properties are second homes and buyers spend their time elsewhere. This situation is sometimes referred to as “Dark House Syndrome” and is common in seasonal vacation destinations such as northern Michigan. But as Traverse City’s housing shortage continues to worsen, local experts agree that it is time to find solutions.
“We have to strike a balance,” said Yarrow Brown, Executive Director of Housing North. “If we want to allow non-homesteads to be empty for six months or to be rented out at short notice, then we have to compensate for this with other units and be able to be more creative about where and how” we can build. “
According to Russ Soyring, former city planner for the City of Traverse City, Michigan tax laws “already provide a negative incentive to own a seasonal home by taxing the property at an additional 18 mills.” Despite these higher taxes, Soyring says “the demand to buy homes for casual use only” has not been dampened: he calls dark house syndrome “a disabling problem for Traverse City and many other target communities” and says that it does The problem is “more pronounced from year to year, more and more apartments stay dark for most of the year, while many people are desperately looking for living space.”
How many seasonal homes and summer residents are there in northern Michigan? There is no easy answer. The United States census does not include seasonal residents, and not all non-homesteads are seasonal or short-term rentals. Michigan tax law only exempts real estate from the additional $ 18 million apportionment if it is primary residence or “qualifying agricultural property” homestead.
While a large percentage of home ownership in the City of Traverse City is classified as non-homestead, that doesn’t tell the full story of seasonal housing. According to Polly Cairns, City of Traverse City City Surveyor, Valuation Records for 2021 show that “approximately 55 percent of residential real estate for the City of Traverse City portion of Leelanau County and 42 percent for the City of Traverse City portion of Grand Traverse County” “Have a main residence exemption.
Over the years there have been attempts to calculate the full extent of northern Michigan’s seasonal population. In 2014 Networks Northwest commissioned the Land Policy Institute of Michigan State University with the preparation of a “Northwest Michigan Seasonal Population Analysis”. The report, which examined the seasonal population fluctuations in 2012 for the 10 counties of Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee, and Wexford, concluded that “the annual average seasonal population is 35,172 “. , or about 10 percent of the total population of the region. “
“The total population peaks in July and is smallest in January, with a difference of about 93,322 people between those two months,” the MSU Land Policy Institute wrote in the report – although that particular number included not only part-time residents with seasonal homes, but also guests staying in local hotels, motels, campsites and guest houses. “It’s like adding a town the size of Lansing for the summer season every year.”
Although these data points are nearly a decade old, Matt McCauley, CEO of Networks Northwest, says he is looking “for an update in 2022” of the report.
The study also looked at seasonal dwellings and estimated how often they were inhabited throughout the year. In the midsummer months (June, July and August) the highest occupancy of local seasonal apartments was recorded at 64 percent. That percentage fell to 18 percent from September to November, fell to 8 percent from March to May, and rebounded slightly to 12 percent in the March to May period.
It’s not just Traverse City that attracts seasonal residents; According to the Networks Northwest study, Grand Traverse County ranks sixth out of northern Michigan counties in terms of seasonal residents, behind Antrim, Emmet, Charlevoix, Leelanau, and Benzie.
Brown tells The Ticker that one of the challenges with seasonal residences and other non-homestead properties is that they have their advantages. For example, the 18 additional mills levied on non-homestead lots go to local public school districts. “This means we have great schools in our region [extra tax]“, Says Braun.
However, Brown reiterates the importance of finding a “balance” between Northern Michigan’s status as both a seasonal travel destination and a place where people live year-round – and points out that it always does worsening housing crisis is evidence that the balance has shifted too far.
“For the past 10 years, if not longer, we’ve had a huge housing shortage,” she says. “I think we have to focus first on those who live here all year round and try to accommodate them so that they can then support the people who come here seasonally.”
So what’s the cure for Northern Michigan Darkhouse Syndrome? While Brown is quick to dispel any notion of a “silver bullet”, Housing North is working on it.
The organization is working in Charlevoix and Petoskey to introduce deed restriction programs that allow developers and owners of residential real estate to receive incentives if they agree to link their deeds to full-time residence restrictions. As part of the restrictions, homeowners must provide evidence that they live in the property year round; Landlords must provide their tenants with the same proof. The restrictions remain permanently attached to deeds, which means that no one could ever buy a house with deed restrictions and convert it into a seasonal home or a short-term rental. Brown says the programs are in the early stages but show promise and that Housing North “hopes other communities will look into the idea in the future.”
Housing North also advocates changes to tax laws that would allow long-term rentals to be classified as homesteads, which in theory would contribute to lower rental rates as landlords would not pay the additional $ 18 million. Efforts are also being made to reach out to people who own seasonal homes to gauge their willingness to alleviate the area’s year-round housing needs.
“Maybe they have an option to have a caretaker’s cabin on their property or somewhere else to stay,” says Brown. “Maybe there is a way to work with the zoning in this area to add an extra living unit. Perhaps it is because of using these multi-bedroom houses and allowing guest houses or different types of structures, especially for seasonal workers. It’s really just about getting creative and trying to compensate for the houses that have a dark time of year because no one is there. “