2016-12-01 / Front Page

Space Adjusted for Employee Housing

By Erich T. Doerr

The St. Ignace City Council hammered out details of its proposed zoning ordinance amendment dealing with housing at a Monday, November 28, work session with Planning Commission Chair Betsy Dayrell-Hart. Concerned that the new rules would be too restrictive to allow for employee housing, hampering business, Council increased the occupant density in such units.

This was done by lowering the required gross dimensions required for non-family dwellings from 300 square feet per person to 200 square feet in the tourist business district and 240 square feet in residential areas. Council could vote on the amendment as soon as Monday, December 5.

Council’s concern, in part, is that older structures in the city tend to be too small to allow many employees in them, if each requires 300 square feet of gross space. Gross space includes common areas, such as vestibules, kitchens, and living rooms, not just the sleeping areas.

The amendment will ban boarding houses in the single-family R1 districts but allow apartments in the two-family R2 residential areas and encourage seasonal employee housing in the tourist business district. Placing much of the employee housing in the tourist area is designed to limit its impact on families enjoying or seeking year-around housing in single-family residential neighborhoods. Existing hotels or motels could be used for housing seasonal employees, but only if they were converted into apartment buildings first. The ordinance does not differentiate between housing for St. Ignace employees and those who commute to Mackinac Island.

Rental properties will have to be inspected and certified under the amendment, and, if adopted, the city will develop inspection fees to cover the costs. Existing rental buildings could continue to be used as long as they are up to code. The amendment will also allow the city to crack down on illegal housing, preventing people from placing large numbers of people into a single building. Regulations for non-family housing in the business district will require ceiling heights of at least 7.5 feet, at least one bathroom for every four people, and at least one kitchen for every eight people equipped with at least one stove or range, one sink, and a refrigerator.

Dr. Dayrell-Hart spoke in favor of keeping the square footage requirement as high as possible, noting she believes St. Ignace should maintain its reputation as an ideal place to live and that members of the city council shouldn’t set housing requirements they wouldn’t live with themselves. The lowered requirements were seen as a reasonable compromise while still matching or exceeding the Department of Labor’s recommendations for employee housing of 175 feet to 200 feet per person. Councilmember Luke Paquin added that he had spoken with Department of Labor officials and confirmed St. Ignace is a desired location for international workers because the community treats them well.

Councilmembers Jim Clapperton and Paul Fullerton both noted that St. Ignace does not have residents enough to fill its tourist-related employment needs. Most housing for international workers here is converted from existing houses, and many of those houses are too small to permit more than several employees under the 300-square-foot requirement. Mr. Paquin argued that housing has to be cost effective, and good international employee housing is a remedy the city needs until it can draw more permanent residents. He said companies won’t locate in St. Ignace if there isn’t enough labor to fill their needs.

The impacts of the amendment were also discussed. Luke Paquin and Mr. Clapperton noted the amendment could stimulate sales of existing homes for seasonal employee housing, which may not be most desirable, and Mayor Connie Litzner said administrative demands of the new rules could require additional help at City Hall.

Dr. Dayrell-Hart said the city might also want to look at its short-term rental policies, such as those governing bed and breakfasts, as the rise of online rental services, such as Airbnb, make it easier to rent properties to visitors. The city now requires bed and breakfasts be located at least 300 feet apart, but there is no requirement that they be registered with the city. She said the city might need a policy requiring a change of use permit before a property could be rented out for short-term transient accommodations.

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