OCEAN CITY- While a number of factors play into the fact that the resort faces a potential housing shortage for many of its foreign students this summer, the longtime concern with overcrowding in rental units has surfaced once again.
Increased regulations from the U.S. Department of State concerning the J-1 Visa Program has slightly decreased the numbers of students who have come to Ocean City in the past few years, but the decrease in available housing units to foreign students appears to be even greater according to town officials, and those closely involved in the J-1 industry.
This shortage of supply could create an environment where landlords could unlawfully pack more students into rental units than allowed by town law.
“The housing shortage is definitely a concern and if we don’t manage it properly it could become a crisis,” said Ocean City Councilman Wayne Hartman.
Hartman is in favor of a proposed “new interpretation” of the town’s occupancy law, which has been in place since the late 70s. The new interpretation, if passed by the council, would provide a 10 square-foot credit, mostly for closet space, that could help landlords meet occupancy needs without going over the 40 square-foot per person rule.
“I don’t want us to have such a hardline interpretation of this law,” said Hartman. “I think this is a common-sense approach to ensure that we don’t change the number, and we make sure that people aren’t making unnecessary changes to the units to hit the requirements.”
Mayor Rick Meehan agrees that the removal of closets in units in hopes of getting more people into the room for the summer is a dangerous move.
“If there are no closets in the room, then the suitcases are scattered all over the floor of an already crowded room,” said Meehan. “We can’t legislate where people put their suitcases, but I think this could be away to ensure the safety of the tenants and help the landlords at the same time.”
Meehan says the issue of overcrowding in summer rental units has been a problem in past years, but it’s nowhere near the concern that it once was.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to find out who the people were who were badly overcrowding units and bring them into compliance,” said Meehan. “But as the number of students has risen, while the number of available units has decreased, it continues to be a challenge.”
Kevin Brown, the city’s Chief Building Inspector says the city issued 12 citations last summer for overcrowding. Eleven of them settled out of court. Brown says fines for overcrowding can be $250-$500, depending on the severity of the overcrowding offense.
Hartman wants to thwart overcrowding by hitting offenders with a substantial blow to their wallets.
“I think we should take the profitability out of overcrowding units and charge people with a fine per each count of overcrowding,” said Hartman. “That way, if the penalty is greater than the money they would get by putting another person or two in the unit, it sends a clear message.”
Brown says one of the city’s biggest issues concerning the regulation of overcrowding in units is a lack of manpower.
Brown believes landlords who don’t operate within the confines of the town’s law know the city’s lack of manpower issue quite well, which is why his computer is filled with pictures of units that are filled floor to ceiling with bunk beds and students.
“It can be a very lucrative venture to rent to foreign students,” said Brown. “Now, there are more companies who are trying to bring these kids to town, and we are getting more and more complaints about overcrowding every year.”
According to the Melanie Pursel, the Executive Director of the OC Chamber of Commerce and member of the town’s Seasonal Workforce Committee, there are 20 sponsor companies who are bringing foreign students to town. Yet, of those 20 companies, only two have a local office and presence in the resort.
Hartman, who used to be a large provider of summer housing in Ocean City to foreign students prior to being elected to the City Council, says renting to J-1 students is not as lucrative as people may think.
“I transitioned out of that business and remodeled some of my properties and focused more on year-round rentals,” he said. “I think what happens is rental inventory starts to go down when the economy improves, and as the demand for year-round housing has gone up, many property owners have remodeled their places and find that it can be easier to manage their properties, and be better financially to go that year-round route.”
Yet, while Hartman and Brown were in disagreement during the public meeting about the proposed 10 square-foot closet credit, they both have concerns about summer housing this year for foreign students.
“To me, the law is black and white”, said Brown. “I’ve been in these units and I see some of the conditions these kids have to live in, and in some cases, it’s deplorable. I just worry that overcrowding could be a bigger issue this year than it was last year if we aren’t careful.”