OCEAN CITY — Citizen-sourced complaints and historically “problematic” properties will continue to drive enforcement of Ocean City’s occupancy law, despite claims that efforts combating overcrowding will be upped this season.
City officials tried to explain exactly what they mean when they say they plan to “increase enforcement” of the city’s occupancy law and other housing related topics on Tuesday at the Roland E Powell Convention Center to dozens of community members, landlords, and property owners.
“We are trying to improve living conditions in Ocean City by holding properties to a high standard,” said Bill Neville, the city’s director of planning and zoning. “I liken this discussion to getting your boat ready for the season. That’s what we hope this discussion will help you do with your properties prior to summer.”
The city’s PRESS committee (Property Review and Enforcement Strategies for Safe housing committee), led by Ocean City Councilman Wayne Hartman, organized the meeting that was part community workshop and part town hall meeting.
Attendees got the skinny on slight changes to the city’s occupancy law (40-square-foot per person in a bedroom with a 10-square-foot allowance for closet space), the city’s intent to ramp up inspections of properties before the summer season begins to ensure compliance with the law and its intent to streamline how it handles problematic properties through licensing initiatives throughout the season.
One tool will be to sharpen the focus on weekend enforcement of potential overcrowding in rental properties.
“It has always been a part of our enforcement strategy to come in on weekends during March, April, and May looking for contractors working on buildings and potential illegal activity,” said Kevin Brown, the city’s chief building inspector. “We’ve taken a turn now and there may be a need for a call for enforcement officers to come in on the weekend based on a complaint, strictly complaint based, to come in on an overcrowding situation referred to us by the police department or the fire marshal’s office.”
Brown said 90 percent of the city’s overcrowding issues on the weekends in the summertime are handled by the police department.
In recent weeks, the Mayor and City Council amended the city’s 37-year-old occupancy law slightly to add an allowance of 10 square feet per bedroom for closet space in addition to the 40 square feet requirement per person in a bedroom.
Although the law change was enacted predominantly for seasonal rentals, particularly for J-1 visa students due to a housing shortage, Hartman made it clear during last week’s council meeting that the law pertains to all housing in Ocean City.
“I think this process was important and eye opening for everyone on the council,” said Hartman. “They understand the enforcement side is what is going to make this work or not work.”
From the workshop angle, Neville and other members of the PRESS group, including officials from the fire marshal’s office, the OCPD and licensing departments outlined and explained new regulations in the topics of overcrowding, noise, property maintenance, rental licensing, zoning, building class and fire protection. Yet, throughout the 95-minute discussion, when members of the audience spoke up, it became much more “town hall-like.”
One woman, who did not publically give her name, queried about the rationale behind the much publicized housing shortage for J-1 students that the city is facing juxtaposed with the city’s rental regulations in R-1 zoned districts of Ocean City, which significantly limits the types of groups who may rent a property in that particular zone.
“It’s crazy to me that my five-bedroom home in an R-1 zone, can’t house four students who are working here for the summer, when there is a need for housing in the town, but yet, I could have 20 related family members in the house. It’s a contradiction,” she said.
In an R-1 zone, new city regulations prohibits short-term rentals and restricts rentals for any more than four unrelated occupants in an R-1 property.
Outcry from year-round residents who live in those neighborhoods called out for families to inhabit those homes during the summer months because as one gentleman stated during the meeting, “the families usually cause less problems than a group of unrelated individuals.”
Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith talked about the city’s stance on the R-1 district.
“In 1970, the zoning code established the definition of family in order to keep the character of these neighborhoods in the R-1 district,” said Smith. “It’s important to have a balance of year-round versus tourist population in this area.”
One interesting footnote to the conversation pertained to rental licenses, most notably the new rental license fee of $191, and an increase in fines for any property that fails to obtain the required rental license.
Neville and other city officials encouraged property owners to schedule a pre-season inspection to establish the proper occupancy for each unit, and to visibly place the rental license sticker in the front window of the unit to help police officials contact the proper party in the event of an incident with a tenant during the summer.
However, one area where the city may struggle with enforcement in regards to the rental license issue is the growing number of properties listed on the website Air BnB.
Ocean City License Inspector Mike Sherman told The Dispatch last fall that almost all of the properties listed on the popular website have been contacted and are in compliance.
Yet, as the number of properties in Ocean City listed on the site grows seemingly by the day, and the vague nature of identifying the address of the property without being linked directly into Air BnB’s online portal, Sherman concedes that enforcement of the city’s licensing laws in cyberspace will likely continue to be “challenging.”