A three-person majority of East Lansing’s five-member City Council has approved an ordinance that prohibits landlords within City borders from showing or leasing units to other prospective tenants for the next renting cycle until 150 days after the term of the lease began. The idea is to take pressure off students to sign leases well in advance of the next academic year’s start.
But the law passed on Tuesday night will only take effect if both the Lansing City Council and the Meridian Township Board adopt substantially similar laws by August 10, 2021. Otherwise, the East Lansing law will be automatically canceled.
Mayor Aaron Stephens told fellow Council members that one member of Meridian’s Board, Dan Opsommer, is working on a similar ordinance, and that he is hopeful that Lansing Council members would be doing so soon.
Voting in favor of the measure were Stephens, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, and Dana Watson. Ron Bacon and Lisa Babcock voted against.
Ordinance 1500 was originally introduced by Stephens in April and derived from a bill passed in February by the Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU), the undergraduate student government at MSU. It is aimed at trying to reset the local market’s timeline for student leases.
Currently, it is not uncommon for undergraduate students planning to live off campus to be pushed by landlords to sign leases in October – as much as ten months before the lease begins. Some students weighing in on Tuesday night at public comment termed this practice “predatory” and “market coercion,” arguing that “the cards are stacked against students.”
Students in favor noted that the concept behind Ordinance 1500 is taken from a law in Ann Arbor, which prohibits landlords from entering premises or leasing to new tenants for 70 days from the start of a lease.
But besides East Lansing electing for more than double that period – a 150-day embargo in East Lansing compared to 70 days in Ann Arbor – there is one notable difference between Ann Arbor and East Lansing: the City of Ann Arbor wholly ensconces the student-rental area for miles around U of M, allowing it to regulate nearly the whole student-rental market. Here, a large portion of student housing exists in neighboring municipalities that the City of East Lansing cannot regulate.
Making his pitch to his fellow Council members, Stephens argued that this measure was “a vote for students.”
“We are going to significantly impact a population that has — not been taken advantage of by local businesses, but by a market where local businesses have to push this early,” Stephens said.
Stephens also said that his added provision, that the law will be canceled if Lansing and Meridian Township don’t fall into line, is meant to protect East Lansing landlords from the regulation causing them relative hardship.
Babcock, in explaining why she would vote against the proposed ordinance, said her main reservation was the new section pinning the enactment of the ordinance on similar actions from two neighboring municipalities. She said if East Lansing wants such a law, it should enact it whether or not Lansing’s and Meridian Township’s elected officials agree.
Stephens asked Babcock if she would support the ordinance without that clause, and Babcock said no, she had other reservations. (She didn’t say what they were.) She tried, unsuccessfully, to table the issue until June 22, noting that discussion of the complex issue did not start until over three hours into the four-hour meeting.
Bacon voted with Babcock to put off the vote to June 22, and also shared his rationale for opposing the ordinance, namely that he didn’t think the timing of it worked well: voting it through in summer, coming out of a pandemic, as MSU is changing its policy to require sophomores to live on campus, and while the housing market for students is being flooded with new options.
Bacon spoke of possible unintended market consequences and his fear that the new ordinance would be worked around by bigger rental companies.
“When you give impact to the market, it tends to consolidate power and eliminate some smaller players who will be less able to manipulate or do whatever they’re going to do around the rules,” Bacon said.
Watson’s argument for voting in favor of the ordinance fell chiefly along familiar lines to Stephens: that the current timeline for rentals just isn’t reasonable. Watson pointed out that in the time between a lease being signed and students actually moving in, a lot can change, and that “continues to put students in a difficult spot.”
Additionally, Watson said she thinks this change could be advantageous for other groups like families, graduate students, or single adults.
“Other adults who want to stay here, want to rent here — it is hard to find a place if it’s not fall semester,” Watson said. Few of them, she noted, would want to sign a lease almost a year in advance, so the current unregulated market is essentially keeping them out of the market for many units, especially those near campus.
Gregg, the deciding vote who ultimately sided with Watson and Stephens to approve, said she didn’t think this ordinance would ultimately cost landlords money, though it will require them to change the way they do business. She thought the rental housing in East Lansing would still fill up.
Gregg also said she believes this ordinance can make the process of students renting a more “dignified” one for a group that “gets a short shrift in that regard.”
She did raise an issue about enforcement, theorizing that the only way for the City to learn about violations was tenants reporting their own landlord’s violations, something she said she would regret encouraging. She also disagreed with Bacon about who will get away with rule-breaking, saying that the smaller landlords are “in a better position” for that.
Another concern from Gregg was tenants filing a grievance just because they were irritated over something else, but she said she doesn’t think that will happen.
She also disagreed with Babcock on the point of making rules contingent on other municipalities. She saw that as a regional-cooperation move.
“Yes we’re legislating for East Lansing,” Gregg said, “but one of the things that I’ve had reinforced to me over and over again over the last month, with my conversations that I’ve been having in regards to business incubation, is just the fact that we are a region. Our residents don’t know when they’ve crossed a boundary and we only know when they’ve crossed a boundary because we’re cashing their property tax checks.”
During public comment earlier in the meeting, students and landlords called in to speak for and against the legislation, respectively.
Several landlords hired attorney David Pierson to speak on their behalf. He took verbal note of Covid-19 throwing the rental market into disarray, potential lopsided competition with neighboring, comparatively unregulated communities — including Bath and Lansing Township — and lack of coordination between the City and MSU on the timing of pushing for lease-signing.
Landlords calling in argued that this ordinance would really make things more confusing and stressful for students by compressing the rental period, and that more neighboring municipalities needed to be included, not just Lansing and Meridian Township.
Meanwhile, several students called in to share their personal stories of the intense stresses of signing a lease so early, similar to the concerns shared by students back in April. On Tuesday night, one described enormous mental stress to the point of breakdowns. In response, Stephens offered him the number of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, reading it aloud.
Others noted the situation could be especially stressful for immigrant, poorer, and LGBTQ students who may have fewer resources to help them out of bad housing situations and problematic leases. Another also shared with Council that this is something that students and students’ advocates have been pushing to get in some form for around 20 years.
While the students who called in on Tuesday and in April were associated with ASMSU and were in favor of this ordinance, a relatively smaller number of other MSU undergraduates and recent alums emailed Council to urge them to vote down the ordinance.
Three of those emails ended with the exact same sentence: “Please consider my thoughts as I believe I represent all current MSU students and their best interests.”
Whether this ordinance really becomes law will now depend on what happens in Meridian Township and the City of Lansing.