Searching for solutions to seasonal housing woes

It’s the same story every summer in northern Michigan: Not enough help.

This summer is even worse. Housing prices are at an all-time high and rental inventory is even more scarce, as the wave of tourists continues to grow, flooding destinations like Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Traverse City, Petoskey, Mackinaw City and many others.

At least one northern Michigan employer – Short’s Brewing Company in Bellaire – is taking a step toward solving the problem, hoping other businesses across the state will follow suit. 

The popular brewery – a destination in Bellaire, about an hour northeast of Traverse City – has purchased the nearby Bellaire Inn to provide temporary housing for seasonal employees.

“We were hoping (the housing situation) would eventually get better or a solution would come around but  it didn’t. That’s when we started looking at this option,” says Scott Newman-Bale, CEO of Short’s Brewing Company, which also has a taproom in Elk Rapids.

In Bellaire, Short's is looking to hire up to 20 additional staff for its kitchen and front-of-house operations. The brewery also has several open positions at its Elk Rapids campus.

Short’s will rely on the Bellaire Inn as short-term seasonal housing for its own employees and those from other local businesses. Hotel rooms will also be available to the public. 

“What happens is a lot of places up here rent out their houses for the winter,” Newman-Bale says. “When it comes to summertime, they want the big money so they only rent it by the month for the winter. So we were just looking for solutions. This idea came up and we went for it.”

The brewery’s efforts are among only a handful of solutions out there. Other communities across the state are grappling with the same problem. Leland. Pentwater. Petoskey. St. Ignace. In Glen Arbor, Cherry Republic also has purchased housing to accommodate seasonal employees and works with a local boarding school to rent dorm rooms. 

Tourists, of course, feel the impact. Businesses shorten hours or close temporarily. Some eateries and other establishments curtail space to make sure staff can handle customers. Tourists run into longer waits, slower service.

The situation has worsened in the past two years as housing and real estate prices have soared in the wake of the pandemic. The ability for many people to work remotely has sent many former city workers to a quieter life in the state’s scenic rural areas.

“With housing inventory being scooped up and a decade-long lack of new construction—we now have very high demand and low supply,” says Mary Reilly, an educator for MSU Extension. 

Rising mortgage rates, the high cost of construction and shortage of labor all factor into the lack of seasonal housing. The situation is further hindered in attractive tourist towns because the housing stock has been purchased by retirees and people seeking investment or using it for short-term rental income.

MSU Extension educator Bradley Neumann has noticed an increase in demand for short-term rentals to accommodate tourists in rural areas. Short-term rentals impact the rest of the housing market by eliminating “a certain amount of supply for year-round residents,” he says.

One town’s story 

The lack of seasonal housing is acute in towns like St. Ignace, a gateway to the Upper Peninsula and a port for ferry service to Mackinac Island, one of the most popular destinations in the state.

The 2.65-square-mile city is home to restaurants, hotels, fudge and souvenir shops, as well as the Kewadin Casino and notable historic sites. The demand for seasonal workers is high.

“Of course most people who are earning median income in Michigan can’t afford to buy a house at current prices and mortgage rates, but here you can’t even find a house that you can rent,” says Betsy Dayrell-Hart, chair of the St. Ignace Planning Commission. 

The profitability of renting short-term versus long-term plays a role in the seasonal housing shortage, she says, adding the return on investment is significantly larger for short-term rentals. 

Another factor, at least in St. Ignace, is restrictive zoning. City regulations restrict the development of denser housing. Dayrell-Hart points out that multi-person non-family dwellings must be three football fields away from other dwellings in residential neighborhoods.  

“That was intended to protect the residents so that they do not end up on an island, where there is one permanent resident surrounded by multifamily dwellings that are for employees,” she says.

On top of all that, there aren’t many lots for sale in St. Ignace, home to about 2,500 people.

“The amount of space that a land occupies in the city and the amount of housing that you could put on that lot do not match the number of people that we need to live here in order to fill all of the workspaces,” Dayrell-Hart says. 

Even if more seasonal housing could be found, the ratio of residential, employee and short-term housing would have to be carefully balanced because St. Ignace is a city sustained by volunteers, she says. Any solutions to zoning barriers should also work to preserve the city’s small, safe and quiet atmosphere. 

“We are trying to expand and diversify the housing we have to offer residents, to encourage people to move here, live here, have families here, build businesses and communities here,” she says. “To do that, we have to promote long-term residential housing and to minimize housing occupied by people who can not or do not wish to participate in our civic life.” 


Solutions have not been fast coming. 

“Housing is a very complex issue,” Reilly says, noting that shortages impact non-tourist communities as well and solutions lie at both the local and regional levels. “Think of all of the people that commute to work driving from one city to another or the people that are driving farther out of town to find affordable housing. Housing is truly a regional issue but it requires local solutions.”

In northwestern lower Michigan, the Sleeping Bear Gateways Council is attempting to solve the problem at the local level, working with seasonal workers and  employers to address housing shortages in Leelanau and Benzie counties. 

The non-profit organization, with grants from Rotary Charities of Traverse City, Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation and private donations, was able to access a $90,000 USDA Rural Business Development grant to launch a Housing Exchange on its website.

Here’s how it works: Property owners list available space – room, house or cottage – with basic details such as size, price and amenities. Employers enrolled in the program can access lists of available rooms and connect their seasonal workers with property hosts. 

“Because this is a complex issue, we know that it cannot be solved with one single solution,” says Miriam Owsley, strategic communications manager for Rotary Charities of Traverse City, which serves Antrim, Benzie, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau counties.

“It’s important to have  many entities and organizations working together on the problem," she adds. "It’s a problem that needs to be approached from different perspectives, different angles.”

The Housing Exchange was inspired by a pilot program started by Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in 2019. That year the park’s crew of seasonal employees outnumbered the available accommodations. The park, which has housing available in several buildings, including historic homes, is experiencing increasing numbers of visitors each year. 

“Park officials put out a call to the community to see if anyone could help house these employees,” Owsley says. “There was a great outpouring of support.”

Neumann, the MSU extension educator, says developing existing buildings to house single occupancy rooms with shared kitchens or bathroom facilities could be one solution to the problem. Such buildings would likely require changes to conventional zoning regulations.

Collaboration among private companies and government agencies is another way to tackle the issue. Employers seeking to buy buildings or real estate for seasonal housing should work with local governments and economic development agencies to advocate changes for solutions on a smaller scale. 

The Rotary’s Owsley says the community — as a whole – needs to come together to offer solutions. “Instead of wringing our hands and hoping someone fixes the problem, we can open up our homes to house the person that is pouring our drinks, stocking the grocery shelves or launching our kayaks,” she wrote in a recent piece for Rotary Charities.

“We need people to see this crisis as a problem that they can contribute to the solution,” she says. “We encourage community members to open a spare bedroom in their house or let someone park an RV in their backyard, or open the apartment above the garage to a seasonal worker instead of renting it out on Airbnb. We encourage people to use resources in their hometowns to help seasonal employees as individuals.”

She points out that there is no way for many of these communities to continue to handle the influx of visitors if they can’t hire and find housing for seasonal employees. 

“Every summer is busier than the last one,” she says. “There is no way this is sustainable.”

MSU Extension offers materials and programs addressing local housing issues. 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.