OCEAN CITY — While much of the debate this spring over the critical seasonal workforce housing shortage and the associated occupancy calculation formula focused on the legions for international student workers, it appears there is another segment being left on the outside looking in.
It’s no secret Ocean City faces a critical seasonal workforce housing shortage. The deficiency was debated throughout the spring as resort officials wrestled with an outdated occupancy calculation that had been in place since 1979. Much of that debate focused on the need for safe, affordable housing for the thousands of international students who descend on Ocean City on J-1 visas each spring to fill out the resort’s seasonal workforce.
The J-1 students arrive in the resort after careful vetting by their sponsor organizations. For the most part, they have pre-arranged jobs and pre-arranged housing set up by their sponsors. However, another segment of the seasonal workforce is often left on their own to find living arrangements, and with the J-1 students gobbling up much of the housing stock, it’s becoming increasingly difficult.
Local worker Joe Wagner broached the subject during Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting. Wagner, a long-time visitor to Ocean City, last year moved to the resort to get a fresh start and quickly found multiple employment opportunities. However, Wagner told the Mayor and Council this week finding affordable housing continues to be a challenge.
“I’ve been coming here all my life and I live here now and work two jobs,” he said. “It’s very hard to find affordable housing. I spent two weeks living with international students, but when I went to seek new housing, I was turned away.”
Wagner said he has tried different avenues to find housing, including some of the local agencies that support the international J-1 workers, but has been turned away at every turn.
“It’s a wonder to me why I’m being treated like a foreigner in my own country,” he said. “The international kids are getting the red carpet treatment and I can’t find a place to live.”
Currently, Wagner is living in an uptown hotel, but that housing situation is tenuous and costly and might ultimately force him to leave his jobs.
“I’m probably going to be unemployed soon,” he said. “I have two employers that don’t want me to go, but I’m putting myself up in a hotel and after this week I don’t know what to do.”
For decades, summer jobs in the resort were filled by American high school and college students, but there was a shift several years ago with the influx of international students on J-1 visas that afford them employment and cultural opportunities. The conventional thinking has been many American student-workers grew less interested in entry-level jobs and employers courted the foreign students to fill out the ranks as a result. Wagner disagrees, however.
“I don’t buy the argument there are jobs Americans won’t do,” he said. “I can’t get affordable housing because the foreign kids are taking everything up. I went to the International Student Association to see about housing and I was shut down before I started my first sentence.”
Wagner questioned how and why the shift from seeking American student-workers to the international J-1 workers happened.
“We don’t go out to pursue American kids to come here and work,” he said. “Why aren’t we reaching out to American kids to bring them to the beach to work? The fact is, you can’t get affordable housing and the international kids are coming in here and taking up everything.”
While Wagner’s situation is challenging, it appears it is not unique.
“It’s very concerning,” he said. “If I’m having this problem, I know there are other kids out there in the same situation.”
Ocean City officials listened carefully to Wagner’s plight, and while they didn’t have any immediate answers, they vowed to look into it.
“One thing I heard tonight is the young man talked about reaching out to young adults and students from other areas of this country and letting them know there are jobs here in Ocean City,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “That’s an excellent suggestion and something we really ought to look into and something we ought to do.”
Meehan said he would initiate a dialogue to explore expanding the scope of the seasonal workforce to include more American summer workers.
“It’s something I’ll follow up on and hopefully it will make a difference, and we’ll be able to entice more residents of this country who want to come to Ocean City and work,” he said.
As for Wagner’s individual situation, Meehan offered some suggestions.
“The housing situation is difficult,” he said. “You have to get together with others. Foreign students have sponsors so they’re already tied and paying somebody to assist them with housing. It might be why they weren’t able to help you because you aren’t part of that network.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman was involved in seasonal workforce housing as a property owner and said he appreciated Wagner’s plight, but said there were resources out there for him to find affordable housing.
“As for workforce housing, having been a part of that for many years in Ocean City, I know there are a lot of companies out there that are working on the problem,” he said.
Of and on for the last several years, the concept of dormitory-style seasonal housing for the summer workforce either on the island or elsewhere has been broached to no avail. Hartman said it could be time to revisit the idea, but said it would likely have to come from the private sector.
“I think it’s gotten to the point where somewhere in the near future maybe the council can look at some kind of incentive to encourage more seasonal housing in Ocean City,” he said. “I think it should be a private enterprise. I don’t think the city should build seasonal housing, but I think we can enable and encourage others to do it. We haven’t seen that type of construction here for a while and there might be some incentives for that to happen.”
As for Wagner, Meehan wished him well and offered some advice.
“I certainly hope you can find some other individuals that are looking for housing and go in with them to find something suitable,” he said. “I’m glad you’re here to work and I’m glad you’re doing two jobs and I hope it all works out for you.”