In the Age of Airbnb, City Reviews Who's a Lodger and Who's a Guest

Dec 17, 2015

An Airbnb in Havana, Cuba in May 2015
Credit Beth Harpaz / Associated Press

Web sites such as Airbnb make it easy to rent out your home. But you might end up in trouble with your local government. In some cities, zoning precludes short-term rentals. Others require inspections and a certificate for any would-be landlord.

That’s the case in the City of Kalamazoo, where one Airbnb has prompted a discussion within the city about the difference between a guest and a customer.


Sasha Acker’s house, on a side street near Douglas Avenue, was built in 1895. It’s brick, with fish-scale shingles.

“I’ve got hardwood floors, a beautiful wood staircase, an entranceway, it’s a gorgeous old house and I love it so much,” she says.

Acker says she likes to share her home. For years, she invited visitors to Kalamazoo to stay with her for a few days or weeks.

“They’re not strangers anymore after like, five minutes. And, like the only people who have ever stolen from me are people that break into my house when I’m not home,” she says.

Acker says for her, house-sharing has never been a business. She listed her place on short-term rental site Airbnb for $20 a night. She says that’s the lowest price the site would allow.

She likes Airbnb, she says, because it vets potential guests.

When someone made a reservation, Acker says she dropped the price to $5. And in the end, she says, guests paid nothing to stay at her house.

“Airbnb requires you to charge five dollars. And for that five dollars you get their insurance. So if your person destroys something, Airbnb pays for it. So I would charge people five dollars, they would get here, I would give them five dollars cash,” she says.

In September of 2014, Acker got a letter from the City of Kalamazoo. It said she was running an unregistered rental, and it came with a fine of more than $200.

As it turns out, the city’s housing department had recently looked into Airbnb – after a landlords’ group named it as a source of illegal competition from people who hadn’t gone through the sometimes-lengthy rental registration process.

“You need to be a little sleuthy about it because they don’t put the address on there,”  Housing Inspection Supervisor Debra Miller says of the Airbnb website, which only shows a hosts' street.

“Some of them I had to take to our historic preservation officer and say, 'Do you recognize this house? It’s somewhere in this area, because of how they’re showing up on the map on Airbnb.'

"But we found them all,” she says.

Miller says the city identified three unregistered Airbnbs in 2014 and issued each one a fine. One went on to become a registered rental. Another had the fine dismissed after the owner showed it hadn’t had any guests yet.

Acker wrote to the city and explained that she hadn’t really been charging people. But City Attorney Clyde Robinson says her listing was still problematic.

“We don’t track whether or not an individual’s actually collecting anything, it’s the question of, are you holding yourself out to the public as a place of accommodation,” he says.

Robinson says to uphold its rental laws, the city has to find some test for who’s a lodger and who isn’t. And one way to do it is to draw the line at any suggestion of a fee.

“Even if you ultimately waive the fee, you’re still holding yourself out as a commercial venture and that’s probably the easiest way to draw that line. It may not be the most precise way but it’s the easiest way,” he says.

But Sasha Acker says that line wasn’t so clear when she talked to the city about her fine for her Airbnb listing. She says Robinson’s office told her that even a listing on a website like Couchsurfing.com – which doesn’t involve a fee - was against city rules.

“That may have been communicated to her early on when we were not sure what CouchSurfing was," Robinson acknowledges.

Robinson says Acker’s case led his office and the housing department to talk about whether a free housing exchange site like Couchsurfing.com was allowed.

“And so when it was clear that there was no fee required, it helped us draw that line,” he says.

Acker says she didn’t know she’d made Kalamazoo safe for Couchsurfing until she saw public records requested for this story. Eventually, the city did cancel Acker’s fine – after she took her case to other people in Kalamazoo city government. But, she says, she’s still not accepting guests from the Internet.

 “I really miss having people stay, but I just don’t want to go through this again. It was so stressful,” she says.

Acker says registering her house, with its old plumbing and a handful of ungrounded outlets, would cost way too much.

Compared with some other cities the region, Kalamazoo is relatively Airbnb-friendly. In Portage, single-family residential zoning limits the potential for short-term rentals in much of the city. South Haven restricts bed-and-breakfasts and hotels.

In Southwest Michigan, Battle Creek is one of the easier places to start a short-term rental. As long as you live in your house, you don’t have to register.