Michigan tourism workers can afford to live in scenic splendor
by Lacee Shepard
Recent reports show many workers in the tourism industry nationally are struggling to live in the cities where they work, but not those in Michigan.
A Center for Housing Policy report said employees aren’t able to afford homes or rent in the country’s top metro areas such as Honolulu or Santa Ana. Among them are housekeeper and wait staff, who often couldn’t afford fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment.
The report said Michigan wait staff could afford rent and median-priced homes.
Janet Viveiros, research associate at the National Housing Conference in Washington D.C. and co-creator of the Paycheck to Paycheck 2013 report, said the statistics are based on a lot of medians that exclude those don’t fall in the average – warning that looks may be deceiving.
“People might be well below the median and that might inhibit their ability to buy or affordably rent a home,” Viveiros said. “That doesn’t mean everyone in Michigan is doing great. It just means home values are extremely low.
“Things certainly look more affordable, compared to other, more expensive metro areas,” she said.
Tourism bureaus in communities such as Traverse City agree with the data. Mike Norton, media relations director at the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said many employees of local tourism businesses live in the area.
Some Traverse City tourism workers don’t live in the area by choice, but can afford to live there year round, he said.
Mackinac Island has a high need for seasonal workers, but most are able to stay on the island during the summer, said Mary Slevin, executive director of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau.
Most employees, like hotels and gift shops on Mackinac Island, provide housing, she said.
That was true for former Joann’s Fudge employee Emie Louthan of Sunfield, who said her employer offered housing, as well as meals that made it easier to afford living.
Louthan lived in an apartment and ate cafeteria-style food paid for by a monthly stipend taken from her check. She said the amount her employer took was small and made living costs easier to handle.
Kate Brew, executive assistant at Mission Point Resort, said about 95 percent of its seasonal and full-time staff live on the island while employed. The resort provides housing for the majority of its workers, and other employees commute by choice.
Steve Yencich, chief executive office and president of the Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association, said a reason why workers in the state can afford to live in tourism communities is the booming tourism business.
“In the last six years since the advent of the Pure Michigan campaign, we’ve seen total tourism outcomes skyrocket,” Yencich said. “Occupancy levels have led the national average for most of those five or six years.
“We’ve seen a boost of tourism jobs with increased visitors from other states,” he said. “The amount of visitors coming from other states exceeds the number of vacationers that live here in Michigan.
“With that growth comes the kind of prosperity that lets people make a living,” he said.
Norton said the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau has worked to decrease seasonality by promoting tourism throughout the year and preventing the city from shutting down in the winter months.
“We’ve been fairly successful with that. Spring is a much busier time that it used to be and fall in particular – September was as big a month as some of our summer months used to be,” he said.
“We’ve done a good job of reducing that seasonal up and down because it’s better for our residents and employees. They won’t have to go on unemployment or move elsewhere,” Norton said.