The Mayor and Council have a very important decision to make in the coming weeks concerning the summer housing issue and much of it comes down to not-so-simple math.
If they get it wrong, it could pave the path for the proliferation of overcrowding, which is an issue that has plagued the summer housing, and particularly the foreign student summer housing, for decades.
For as long as wide-eyed college students have been coming to town, both foreign and American, there have always been local landlords willing to pack these kids into their “quaint beach cottages” for the summer months at a thousand bucks a head or more. It’s a well known fact that there’s good money in the property “game” here in the resort. While we don’t fault anyone for having “skin” in that game, we acknowledge that some landlords completely adhere to the town’s occupancy law, which states there needs to be 40 square feet of space per person in a bedroom, and others cram students into their units like sardines as if they didn’t even know such a law exists. The town has three guys inspecting all the summer rental units, and they work on a complaint-driven basis, so as one can imagine, many overcrowding offenses fall through the cracks each and every summer.
To truly understand what’s on the line here, think of a bedroom that’s 150 square feet (that’s about 10 ft wide and 15 ft. long). Imagine two bunk-beds in that room. Now, town law would say that at 40 square feet per person, you can only legally fit three people in that room, but a landlord would only be 10 square feet short of fitting in that fourth person, or the proverbial last bed on the second bunk.
That 10 square-foot is the difference between a landlord making an extra $1500 in summer rent, and the difference between another student having a place to sleep, when it is now known that we have a substantial shortage of housing for foreign students.
When the Mayor and Council caught wind of the fact that some landlords were taking out closets altogether in order to create enough square footage to fit in an extra person, they rightfully raised a red flag.
Each councilmember should make sure they take a long look at the dozens of pictures that Chief Building Inspector Kevin Brown has amassed in the past few years at units that house foreign students, and ask themselves if they would allow their kids or grandkids to spend three months living in those places.
Those pictures will show you small rooms with bunk beds stacked on bunk beds to the point that students have to walk sideways to get in and out of the room, luggage scattered all over the floor because there isn’t enough closet space for the sheer number of students inhabiting the room.
This reporter has lived in a few dumps during his first few summers in Ocean City and I’m no worse for the wear. One house, where I paid $1000 to sleep on a loveseat had the bathroom sink fall off while I was brushing my teeth, and my second summer beach house in O.C. caught fire thanks to a scintillating combination of the upstairs tenant’s love of late-night Lambrusco, Bath and Body Works candles, and the unit’s polyester blend curtains. Our landlord was in Key West at the time of the fire spending our rent money and in the days of Gordon Gecko-sized mobile phones, he was impossible to reach, so when the house was condemned, my roommates and I spent the last few weeks of summer couch surfing.
I mention the fire because after having lived through the panic of trying to flee a small space with flames all around, I realize the possible indirect consequences of the council’s upcoming decision on this matter. This isn’t just about square footage and closets, it’s about human lives, rent money, and the law.
While a housing shortage is worrisome, and trying to help local property owners rent their units to the fullest capacity is commendable, the potential tragic headline of an inferno claiming the lives of six Romanians living in OC for the summer is way worse. If summer rental housing is in fact, as one longtime property owner described this week as the “last resort” and the “lowest usage of a property,” the council should be very careful it doesn’t inadvertently create too much of a “gray area” to an otherwise “black and white” issue by altering the law any further than the proposed “closet credit.”
Simply put, do the math but realize this is about more than just numbers.