OCEAN CITY — In downtown Ocean City, three Romanian medical students here for the summer as part of the J-1 Visa Work and Travel program sit on the porch of their small second floor apartment. They are smoking cigarettes and sitting in the shade where it is much cooler than the house, because they say the ancient window air-conditioning units have not been working properly. They joke about how tired they are from their numerous jobs and chuckle about the many interesting things they’ve seen American tourists do while on vacation.
“I’m sorry for the mess,” says Emily, a petite and soft-spoken 20-something, “but the place is kind of a dump anyway, so there is not much we can do about it. I’m glad we took it though because there are many people who don’t have a place to stay and had to go home.”
Leading up to the summer season, the big talking point surrounding the annual influx of thousands of foreign students from around the globe that serve as a vital cog in the wheel of the summer workforce in the resort was a severe housing shortage.
“We didn’t know where we were going to put many of the students because many of the properties are either no longer available or the landlords have chosen not to rent to foreign students,” said Annemarie Conestabile, Program Director for United Work and Travel in Ocean City. “Thankfully, we found a place for everyone prior to the students arriving, but in some cases, we had landlords who backed out of our agreements just prior to Memorial Day weekend so they could rent to American tourists and make more money, and that made the housing shortage even worse.”
The result of those landlords going back on their agreement with sponsor companies like United Work and Travel not only intensified the housing shortage, but it put many international students, like Justina from Poland and her roommates, essentially on the street when they arrived in the states.
“You spend all this money to get here, and you are promised a job and housing, and then we were told that we had no place to stay,” she said. “Thankfully, our sponsor company put us up in a hotel until they could find us a new place to stay.”
Conestabile says her company spent an “unbelievable amount of money” putting up nearly 100 students in local hotels, some for several weeks at a time, who had housing promised to them and then taken away on a whim by the landlord.
“The housing shortage was bad enough,” said Conestabile. “We had to police our own houses to make sure our students weren’t letting people in that weren’t supposed to be there and overcrowding the units. There were some students who went home, and other students who had to seek shelter at churches or anywhere they could find to sleep. It’s been the most stressful year I’ve ever seen in this business, and the kids are even more stressed out.”
Deanna, another of the Romanian students, says many of the students who elected to go home are taking a huge loss financially, but even more so, don’t get to experience this country at all.
“That’s the reason we come here — to work and to travel,” she said. “We have to work for the entire year, plus schooling, to make enough money to come here. Many of us take out loans, and our first job we have here is put towards paying off that loan. For those kids, they lose all that money because they didn’t have a place to stay when they were told they would. It’s terrible.”
Yet, the students say other students who felt the sting of the housing shortage who were with different sponsor companies, weren’t so lucky.
“Some of those companies didn’t do anything for those kids,” said Emily. “They just took their money and they were on their own. We were the lucky ones.”
Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel contacted a number of the companies during what she called a very “tense” time at the beginning of the summer to make sure they were trying to help the international students after complaints were called in.
“We knew this summer was going to be an issue, and we had sort of a perfect storm happen right around the beginning of June,” said Pursel. “I think we need to definitely put a long-term plan in place for dorms or additional housing. It’s such an important program for our seasonal economy and we love the foreign students. We can’t roll over and let things like this happen.”
The overcrowding issue in summer housing has been a problem for years, but it was something that the city promised to crackdown on this year.
According to Bill Neville, the city’s planning and zoning director, the season is still young and they are tackling complaints one at a time.
“Our inspectors are out there and responding to complaints about overcrowding and other things,” he said in a phone interview. “So far, we’ve written 12 citations and seven of those were at one property. We know this is a big concern, but our focus right now is on the enforcement of the city ordinance. We are working to get people into compliance.”
According to the city’s spreadsheet of inspected properties, which are all based on filed complaints, some summer housing units have been found to be not just overcrowded, but also without working smoke detectors, rental licenses, or in the case of one unit, running water.
Still, it seems that even if there is a supply and demand problem concerning housing, the lack of recourse against property owners who go against their word to rent to international students has been brought into question.
“It’s still early in the season, and we are trying to get people into compliance,” said Neville. “Would we as a city try to manage the process? At the moment, we will respect the system that is already in place. At some point, it may get to that but government solution or involvement hasn’t been called for yet.”
Conestabile says she has homes for all of her students today, but she worries about the future of the program.
“The whole program is at risk if this isn’t remedied,” she said. “If these international students aren’t here, employers suffer and so does Ocean City. They do so much for our city, and we have to do more to protect them while they are here.”