OCEAN CITY — Grim pictures of stacked bunk beds, blocked windows and doors and narrow egress paths provided the perfect backdrop this week for the ongoing discussion of proposed tweaks in the occupancy calculations for seasonal workforce housing.
Ocean City’s current calculation calls for 40 square feet of bedroom space for each occupant in seasonal employee housing, a local standard that has been in place since 1979. The widely accepted international standard is 50 feet per occupant, leaving Ocean City’s standard smaller than most neighboring communities.
Faced with a growing seasonal housing shortage now deemed critical, there have been discussions about tweaking the occupancy calculation. The issue arose when city officials learned some seasonal housing landlords were seeking a credit for closet space, for example, to meet the 40-foot standard. For example, a typical 150-square-foot bedroom would accommodate only three summer workers, but a credit for the 10 square feet of closet space would allow a fourth tenant.
Coupled with a widely known seasonal workforce housing shortage in the resort, squeezing an extra summer worker in here and there certainly has implications for the business community starved for summer help, but perhaps most importantly, there are major safety concerns and quality of life issues for the employees, including the thousands of international J-1 students who flock to the resort each summer.
After a lengthy debate on Tuesday, the City Council voted unanimously to retain the existing 40-square foot standard with a 10-foot credit for bedroom closet space, essentially voting down any sentiment to relax the standard. During the debate, Councilman Doug Cymek shared several pictures of deplorable seasonal housing bedrooms with bunk beds blocking windows and doors and suitcases and other personal property blocking pathways to exits. Cymek also brought in Fire Chief David Hartley to relate the story of a fire years ago in an overcrowded seasonal housing unit that resulted in multiple fatalities.
“You can see there are bunk beds stacked in there with narrow passages and windows blocked,” said Cymek, referring to one of the pictures. “If there was a fire, they couldn’t get out if they wanted to. I think we would have fatalities because they would never get out.”
Most seasonal housing landlords are aware of and adhere to the 40 square-foot rule, but a few less scrupulous landlords look the other way and cram far too many student workers into undersized bedrooms. Others have found a loop-hole and are reconfiguring floor plans and removing closets altogether to meet the 40-square-foot standard and gain an extra tenant per bedroom.
It has created a conundrum in a resort facing a seasonal housing crunch and the potential loss of summer employees, but paramount to all of that is the health, welfare and safety of the student workers. Of course, regulating the amount of square footage per person in seasonal housing is only effective if the housing is inspected and the regulations are enforced.
Chief Building Inspector Kevin Brown and his department inspect hundreds of seasonal housing units despite limited resources, but more than a few slip through the cracks. For that reason, Cymek urged his colleagues and the city manager to find more funding in the budget for increased inspections and enforcement and encouraged that to happen sooner rather than later.
“It seems like we are good at identifying the problem but aren’t always good at following through,” Cymek said. “I sympathize with the staff and the lack of resources, but we need to find the money to implement programs and more enforcement. We need to get this done. Those pictures speak volumes and we can’t let this wait another year.”
Calculating the square footage to meet the occupancy standard creates challenges because almost no two units are the same, particularly in the older seasonal housing buildings. Councilmember Mary Knight said she spent considerable time in advance of Tuesday’s meeting attempting to calculate the square footage of a guest bedroom in her home using a traditional tape measure and a laser tape measure and never came up with the same number twice.
She also attempted to measure the square footage of a closet in the room with similar results. Knight said in light of the pictures presented, she supported retaining the 40-foot standard with a 10-foot closet credit, but could not support anything lower. She did voice concern about impacting the wrong people with a tighter ordinance, however, and also called for more enforcement.
“This is extreme with the bunk beds blocking the windows,” she said. “It is clear from this there are people blatantly doing the wrong thing. My fear is we’re going to hurt people who are doing the right thing. We need more people out there inspecting everybody who has a rental license and see how they are setting these rentals up.”
Property Owners Look To Maximize Rental Income
Of course, there is a significant financial element to the issue. What resort officials are learning is that seemingly innocuous 10 feet, roughly the size of a standard bedroom closet, can make the difference between three summer tenants in a room or four, and for seasonal housing landlords, perhaps an extra $1,500 to $2,000 per unit per summer. Extrapolated out over hundreds of units, there are certainly major financial considerations. However, Cymek pointed out there had to be a balance and life safety issues certainly trumped any financial concerns.
“I know the landlords are looking to maximize the space and the sponsors are looking for more beds and there are a variety of factors, but I am not willing to compromise life safety,” he said. “We need to find a way to step up enforcement.”
Brown said his research indicated most communities around the country, including resort communities with the same seasonal housing issues, were adhering to the international standard of 50 square feet and expressed his desire to perhaps raise the standard in Ocean City. However, understanding the complexities of the seasonal housing issue in Ocean City with its vacation rentals and the international student-worker housing shortage, he could live with the existing 40-foot standard.
“The win-win for public safety is to go back to the 50 square feet,” he said. “I would be comfortable with the 40 square feet but would prefer going back to 50. Going to anything less than 40 would be unacceptable.”
Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville pointed out Ocean City’s occupancy issues were somewhat unique because of the transitional, short-term housing and seasonal nature of the resort. He pointed out in a year-round residential community, tenants typically have much more personal property to store including winter clothes, for example, while tenants in a summer rental have far less property. Neville supported retaining the existing 40-foot standard in Ocean City and also encouraged more resources for inspections and enforcement.
“Ocean City represents a different housing stock from a living space standpoint,” he said. “It’s different than a year-round residential community with short-term vacation rentals. With less square footage comes a higher degree of responsibility. That means more inspections and more enforcement.”
Only More Enforcement Will Bring Change
Councilman Wayne Hartman also encouraged increased enforcement, but said there has to be a bigger hammer for the city for it to be effective. He pointed out the fine might be the same for a four-person unit found to be housing five individuals as the same four-person unit found with eight or even 10 individuals living in it. He said with limited inspections, some less scrupulous landlords would run the risk of getting caught with far more tenants in a room than the code allows because the potential rental income far outweighed the possibility of getting caught and fined.
“We need to take the profitability out of it,” he said. “The fines should be based on the number of people they go over. I know what safe housing looks like and it doesn’t look like this. Whatever the ordinance is, it’s not going to change this, only enforcement will.”
Councilman Dennis Dare agreed the life-safety issues probably warranted an increase to 50 square feet, but said the current 40-square-foot rule with the 10-foot closet credit was workable, assuming it was enforced.
“Can we live with 40? I think so, but I don’t want to see us going any lower,” he said. “The key is enforcement. We need to be proactive, not reactive.”
Dare suggested there could a sliding scale with the current 40-foot rule for some traditional seasonal housing and a 50-foot rule in areas with more year-round residential rentals.
“If our goal is to maintain a livable community, perhaps we can consider having a 50-foot standard in those R-1 zone only and maintain the 40-foot standard in the transitional housing,” he said.
Cymek suggested the current 40-foot standard could be maintained, or grandfathered in, so to speak, on existing rental properties, with a higher standard in new rental properties. However, he continued to hammer home the importance of the life-safety issues.
“Those pictures are to drive a point home,” he said. “We have a lot of these throughout town. I think we need to leave it at 40 for the existing rental housing, and new rental properties and redeveloped properties would have to meet the 50-foot standard.”
The council voted unanimously to retain the current 40-foot standard with the 10-foot credit for closet space in the interest of getting ready for the upcoming season with a promise to revisit some of the other issues in the future.
The council also instructed City Manager Doug Miller to find money in the budget to provide Brown with the resources and manpower needed to effectively enforce the ordinance.