A little house in Empire: one couple’s small housing solution

By Mae Stier 

Sun contributor

The topic of housing in Leelanau County––and the lack of affordable housing––is one that seems to come up often for those who live here. Among my peers––entrepreneurs and workers in their late-20s to early-30s––housing discussions are often filled with a bit of discouragement. 

Many of us work multiple jobs to afford to live where we do, and still some are living with parents or in seasonal rentals requiring them to move out for three months of the year while the home is offered as a short-term rental to vacationers. The housing climate in Leelanau as it stands is limiting the ability of young people and families to become active members of our townships and villages, which affects our workforce, our sustainability as year-round communities, and our future. 

When I moved to Leelanau County full time as a 28-year-old single woman three years ago, I was lucky to find a year-round rental home in Empire. My landlord, David Diller, is the director of the Glen Lake Community Library, and had faced the difficulties of housing availability when he moved back to the area to work for the library in 1997. After living in an off-season rental in Burdickville that required him to move out for the summer, he was offered a year-round rental at a small home in Empire. He jumped on the chance to have a permanent place to live, and spent nearly two decades in the cottage, which he eventually purchased. 

When he relocated to another home within the village of Empire five years ago, he intentionally decided to offer his property as a year-round rental, creating a solution to those who were in the same situation he had faced. 

When I first saw the advertisement for Diller’s rental home in Empire, I was unaware of just how rare it was. Despite my lack of knowledge on the difficulties of the housing situation at the time, I called David immediately and within days I was signing a lease to make the cottage my home. It’s a small home––less than 500 square feet––but has suited my needs perfectly over the past few years.

While living in this small home in Empire, I have become increasingly more involved with the community. I currently am a trustee on our Village Council, I assist our Chamber of Commerce with marketing for our businesses and village events, and this spring I opened the Blue Heron Mercantile on Front Street, where I sell a combination of groceries, to-go food, and locally made art. I opened the shop in part to address our community’s need for grocery essentials, but also to help support other local entrepreneurs who are working hard to live in this county.

Not only have I increasingly invested more of my working time and energy in Empire, but I have also put down personal roots in this village: I met my partner, Tim Egeler, here, and in October we will welcome our first child into our sweet little home. It’s safe to say that I’m here for the long-haul. 

As Tim and I think about the future, and the extra human who will be living with us come fall, we have started to look for options of houses we can purchase in the area. Ideally, we will stay in Empire: Tim grew up here and I have established my life here with my business and community involvement. But the housing market isn’t the most friendly to our budget, despite the fact that we both work full-time (over-time in the summer, as the season dictates), so we are planning to stay in our rental as long as we can make it work. Two adults, one baby, and one 80-pound Labrador in 500-square feet will be just fine, right?

We could potentially move to a larger rental, but the options are limited (maybe even non-existent) in our village. Many non-homeowner-occupied homes are short-term rentals during the summer (a quick search on Airbnb and VRBO yields 20 vacation rentals in the Empire village limits alone; 10% of our total houses). While there certainly are other homeowners in the village who offer year-round rentals, the spaces are unlikely to become available, as most people who can find long-term rentals live in them for years.

The long-term housing market is low in Empire and throughout Leelanau County, with only about 15% of homes in the county occupied by renters (source: affordablehousingonline.com, US Census Bureau data), compared to the nationwide average of 36.1% of homes renter-occupied. Needless to say, when you find a home to rent, you stay in it as long as you can. 

Leelanau County’s appeal to many, myself included, is part of why housing has become so difficult to find. Everyone wants to claim this beautiful place as their own, and there is only so much land available. Housing prices county-wide are currently the highest in the state, with a median home price of $281,979 (source: Detroit Free Press). Add in the increase in the short-term rental market, which has seen 233% growth in the state of Michigan since 2016 (source: Housing Compliance via Networks Northwest), and it’s no wonder that long-term rentals and affordable houses for sale are difficult to come by. According to a study conducted by representatives of the National Bureau of Economic Research and UCLA, short-term rentals directly affect the long-term rental market, decreasing from long-term rental supply and increasing housing costs overall (source: SSRN). 

More and more, young families are being priced out of Leelanau County, evidenced by the increasing median age. From 2010 to 2018, the median age in Leelanau County increased from 50.3 to 54.6 (source: US Census Bureau), with villages like Empire pushing even closer to 60. Michigan’s median age, which is higher than most of the country, is 39.5. Based on this, the majority of our residents are likely to be retired, a reality that affects both our available workforce and our housing costs. 

So what are the solutions for creating more affordable housing in a tourist destination that many people (understandably so) hope to retire in? How do we limit an increasing short-term rental market and encourage more homeowners to intentionally offer their properties as long-term rentals for young families and community members? Is this something that is necessary to regulate from a government level, or is it up to individual homeowners such as Diller–– and others like him––to prioritize year-round residents in their homes? 

The discussion is ongoing, and there don’t seem to be any easy solutions. As technology changes, so does the conversation, making the affordable housing problem different today than it was even five years ago. But it is necessary for us to continue paying attention to housing trends in our communities, and to try to work together to find solutions that will encourage more long-term residents in our small towns.

More importantly, it is essential to listen to the voices of our neighbors, especially those who are being impacted by the changes in the cost and availability of housing. If we don’t continue holding space for this issue to be discussed––and actively working to create solutions––we may soon find ourselves with no one left to work in our grocery stores or to grow our food or to run our favorite restaurants. Without long-term residents, our communities will lose their workforce and as a result, we may lose more of our small businesses and the resources and character they provide for northern Michigan.