OCEAN CITY — Less than a month after nearly two dozen foreign students working in the resort for the summer on J-1 work and travel visas were evicted from substandard housing downtown, a local business owner this week urged the Mayor and Council to address the broader issues associated with overcrowding and poor living conditions.
In July, roughly 20 Irish J-1 students were evicted from their seasonal student housing rentals after it was determined they were living in seasonal housing that exceeded the town’s maximum occupancy codes. City officials including Mayor Rick Meehan and Councilman Wayne Hartman responded and helped work with the displaced foreign summer workers on finding new accommodations for the remainder of their time in Ocean City.
It is certainly not a new issue and has been going on in Ocean City for many years to varying degrees. Last year, the Mayor and Council worked for several months to tighten the town’s maximum occupancy ordinance to at least 40 square feet per occupant and promised stiff inspections and enforcement and yet infractions such as those that surfaced in July still occur and many others go unreported.
During the public comment period of Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting, business owner Shannon Tippett urged the elected officials to further explore ways to improve seasonal workforce housing and step up enforcement in light of last month’s evictions. Tippett spoke from personal experience related to the J-1 employees she hires.
“I talked to my Serbian employees and they are overcrowded and living in deplorable conditions,” she said. “They have holes in their ceilings and every time it rains they have an issue with water. From what they tell me, their landlord is completely unresponsive.”
Tippett suggested the poor conditions many foreign J-1 students live in that came to light last month have become the norm and not the exception.
“We don’t just have one incident,” she said. “We have had several and there are so many more we don’t hear about. Would we want our children to go over to a foreign country and be treated like this? I know I wouldn’t.”
A growing trend has been the lack of seasonal workforce housing within Ocean City itself, forcing J-1 student workers to look elsewhere for safe and affordable employee housing, which has complicated the issue.
“As more and more landlords switch to weekly rentals, many of the J-1 students are forced to go over to West Ocean City where some conditions are even worse for the students to deal with,” she said. “Transportation is becoming a big issue. We will have more transportation problems with these kids walking across that bridge late at night to housing on poorly lit streets.”
Tippett said the growing issues could result in many seasonal student workers seeking other locations for the work-travel needs in the future.
“Eventually, these kids will grow tired of how they are treated and stop coming here,” she said. “What will Ocean City do when we don’t have enough seasonal employees?”
Tippett suggested all of the stakeholders including the business community should come together to start finding ways to resolve some of the issues.
“I have already been told by the city they are planning a major crackdown,” she said. “I feel all of the business owners should get together to try to help these students in future years. Next year, they are required to have housing secured before they are issued visas. We already have close to a 100-bed shortage and that doesn’t include that code enforcement units.”
As it stands now, the town is falling short of its obligations, according to Tippett.
“We owe it to these students to do the best we can for them,” she said. “We are not doing our best and that is unacceptable. We need to do everything we can to change this situation.”
The business owner said she treats her foreign student-workers as if they were her own and many of her colleagues do the same.
“Throughout the summer with the work and travel program, I am a mother before I am a business owner,” she said. “I treat all of these kids like they are my own. For three months, they need a parental figure.”
Tippett said beyond the work aspect of the J-1 program is a cultural exchange aspect that is likely not being met for many of the foreign seasonal workers.
“We don’t want them going back to their countries hating America,” she said. “I have been told several times over the last few months they would never recommend Ocean City and that is a huge problem. Together, we must figure out how to safely, efficiently and affordably house these students for the summer.”
For his part, Meehan said he and other town elected officials and city staffer met with some of the evicted student workers last month.
“We did see first-hand some of the issues that you all faced earlier this month and it was critical,” he said. “The J-1 program is not just a work program. It is a cultural exchange program and we’re supposed to share our cultures and have them become acquainted with our culture. In order to do that, we have to have safe and proper housing for these students.”
Meehan said it will likely take a partnership of all of the stakeholders.
“It’s an issue that has to be addressed not just by the city, but by the business owners and the property owners,” he said. “We all have to work together to ensure the conditions meet the test of the code. I think that’s what you’re asking for and what the J-1 students are asking for.”
The mayor suggested a targeted task force could be put together. The town already has a Property Review and Enforcement Strategies for Safer Housing (PRESS) committee to handle seasonal housing issues, but Meehan suggested greater involvement from different sectors of the community.
“Maybe we can put together a group of business owners and work together on how we can best resolve these issues,” he said. “It’s about looking ahead, not looking back. If we approach it in that manner, maybe we can make some progress.”
As for the eviction situation last month, Meehan said steps would be taken to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future.
“I apologize to the students who came here this summer and had to live in some of these conditions,” he said. “Sometimes, it comes down to they just need a place and they’re willing to adjust and adapt while they’re here. Our obligation is to help them do that and make sure they don’t have to adjust and adapt to conditions such as some of these.”
Hartman agreed there were chronic offenders but cautioned against painting all seasonal housing landlords with a broad brush.
“There are good landlords out there and we need to recognize that,” he said. “Then, there are certain individuals who decide to do it their own way and those are the ones we need to address. It’s not all of them, and that’s unfortunate.”
Hartman said after city officials met with evicted J-1 Irish students last month, City Manager Doug Miller followed up with them to determine what the issues were including water leaking through roofs during even modest rain events.
“Certainly, nobody deserves to live in those conditions,” he said. “Hopefully, those types of issues can be addressed sooner rather than later. This is something we need to bring up during the strategic planning meetings. It is a problem for the town. Maybe we can encourage people to explore ways to build better housing or create incentives to make it realistic for people to build housing for this purpose. The employers do need these students here and we want them to go back with the right experience.”