Leelanau News and Events

Zero Homes To Rent In The County: Families Trapped In A Desperate Long-Term Rental Crisis

By Emily Tyra | March 28, 2022

It was a hot alert, complete with siren emojis. Last week Leland Realtor Carolyn Telgard shared a year-round Leelanau County rental listing on Instagram: a renovated two-bedroom unit for $1,250 per month, with a second unit available in September. The rental was a fixer-upper duplex north of Suttons Bay which Telgard’s client purchased in 2021 as an investment property. 

Charynn Meoak, who co-owns Suttons Bay’s Refuge Salon with husband Mitchell was one of dozens of potential year-round renters who responded, but moments too late. Within hours of the posting, both units were gone.

The Meoaks, who came to Leelanau County four years ago and opened their Aveda salon and home décor shop in 2020, have been looking nonstop for about a year for a place to rent, knowing their current rental agreement in Glen Arbor would come to an end.

The local business owners and parents of three (pictured, above left) are looking for a basic rental “ideally in the Glen Arbor, Maple City or Empire area” while they build on property they own near Burdickville. Charynn Meoak says even with the stress of figuring out their next move (“it is at a 10 with a full head of gray hairs”) she is grateful to their current landlord. “He let us stay longer, which was above and beyond, but it’s time to move on. He needs to start renovations on the house.”

If they can’t find a rental by next month? “We are going to buy a camper. Gratefully we have land, but most people looking do not,” says Meoak.

Brooke Hall — mom of three, artist, educator, and server at the V.I. Grill in Suttons Bay — has been scouring the county for a three-bedroom home to rent since November. Her kids, ages 17, 14 and 11, go to Leland and Suttons Bay schools. She has also benefitted from a benevolent landlord — a “friend of a friend who was willing to rent to my family. I’m here till May,” she says.  

Hall and her family (above, right) have lived in rentals in Northport, Omena and Suttons Bay in their 12 years in the county. She notes that equal to the dearth of rentals is the chasm between working wages and the cost of rent. As a single working mom, she wants to find an “affordable rental for a few years, or a land contract,” she says. “I really just want a safe roof over our heads and to be a part of a vibrant community. That does not seem an attainable goal for so many families.”

Hall and Meoak say they are just one of many — that the overheated rental market has forced an urgent and precarious position for people who actually live and work in Leelanau’s communities.

Shares Meoak, “When I say there is nothing to rent that is not an exaggeration. I feel like everyone in the county is on the lookout. I can’t tell you the number of people who have put us on text threads. We did a social media post. At that point other younger families messaged us that they are in the same boat — with their current rentals becoming short-term rentals or going up for sale — and likely will have to move away. We actually know people who have already moved, and left jobs they love.”

Here is a rental market reality check as of noon Sunday March 27:  Zillow, Trulia, and Rent.com show zero homes, condos or apartments listed for rent in Leelanau County.

Meoak says they have made calls on a handful of homes for rent in Traverse City. Right now, for example, a three-bedroom on Webster Street is going for $2,300 per month. A two-bedroom on Spruce is going for $1,925 per month. On the higher end, a place on Pine Street is listed at $3,900 per month

Meoak says of a $2,300 per month home they are considering, “I can’t afford that and a construction loan,” thus creating a renters’ limbo they can’t crawl out of.

A tsunami of people buying property on the Leelanau Peninsula — many for second homes — has led to a lack of affordable houses to buy. Meoak says the rental landscape is even more grim, in part because seasonal short-term rentals are forcing out what could be long-term rental options.

Indeed, Airbnb data indicates massive spikes in activity in northern Michigan during 2021. In the January-through-September window, Airbnb hosts netted $20 million in Grand Traverse County — more revenue than any other county in the state. Leelanau also saw considerable short-term rental numbers in that same January-to September stretch: $11.1 million in revenue for Airbnb hosts.

“I think that that’s where we’re kind of missing the boat,” says Meoak. “If we do have money that’s coming in from short-term rentals, a portion could be going towards creating affordable housing or long-term rentals,” she poses.

She adds, “It’s so desperate. We are actually feeling this every single day. Our business growth hasn’t been based on the number of clients we can get through the door. It’s been based on the number of staff I can hire. I’ve had some great candidates reach out, but there's nowhere to live.”

Hall agrees, “The people I serve are grateful to be here and appreciate the working class. In addition to the beauty here, the feeling of community is rare and special. But our community won’t work without the people serving lunch, growing foods, plowing roads, cleaning rentals, and making the art in the gift shops. If we can’t house our working class, it’s going to be hard for everyone, including the visitors we are so grateful for and love to share our community with.”

Meoak adds, “The writing’s on the wall for our community and economy if we can’t staff and if we have no affordable housing. I’m speaking for the service industry, and this is a very scary situation. Because what do you do when hard work and determination don’t matter? And what does that look like for the future of Leelanau County? Maybe instead of trying to draw more tourism we get a foundation in place first, with business owners and leaders in the community coming together to say, ‘we are smarter than this, let’s figure something out.’”

Hall agrees, “We are at a crossroads in this conversation to enact real change. What we can do is help the person next to us, and enable them to help the person next to them. People can ask themselves what can I do now, not how much can I squeeze and extract from this situation. Ask what do I need for this to be a mutual blessing. Look at it in the macro: considering zoning, changing perceptions, and making change at a structural level so we are growing community, not scattering it.”

Stay tuned for Part Two of this tale, where we check in with current landlords, grassroots activists, and others fighting to keep Leelanau a place where people can work — and live — in the same community.

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