OC Seasonal Workforce Housing Shortage Debated

OCEAN CITY – The shortage of available and affordable workforce housing to meet the resort’s seasonal employee demand was one of the key topics of discussion during a joint meeting this week between the Mayor and Council and the Planning Commission.

The Mayor and Council met with the Planning Commission and staff this week to discuss a variety of issues germane to both bodies. It’s no secret Ocean City has a seasonal workforce housing shortage and continuing to address that remains a key issue for the planning commission, and ultimately the Mayor and Council.

There has been progress made on the issue. Just last week, the planning commission approved site plans for two housing projects on opposite ends of the town, including a three-story boarding house with 84 beds on a lot on Dorchester Street that has been vacant for over a decade, along with a mixed-use project at an existing business at 82nd Street including retail on the first floor and employee housing on the second floor with 33 beds.

During Tuesday’s joint meeting, Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville outlined to current inventory of affordable seasonal workforce housing in the resort and the demand, which continues to be a moving target. Neville said 2020 Census data identified over 30,000 total housing units in Ocean City, of which, over 26,000, or roughly 87%, are considered “vacant” because of their seasonal nature.

The Census data Neville outlined on Tuesday suggested the total number of seasonal jobs in the resort is estimated at 7,500 to 10,000, including an estimated 4,000 seasonal J-1 work and travel visa workers. The data suggests there are 1,100 apartments available in the resort with an average of two bedrooms and two bunk beds per room, netting 8,800 potential beds available.

Last May, the planning commission recommended a proposed code amendment that could help address the seasonal workforce housing shortage. The existing code includes a section defining employee housing as an accessory use, or living quarters with a portion of a main building or an accessory building located on the same site to be used by individuals employed on the premises.

However, the code does not currently include a definition for employee housing as a non-accessory use, or housing with close proximity to one or more employers.

The proposed code amendment included other changes relative to workforce housing. However, the council remanded the code amendment back to the planning commission for revision, a process that is ongoing. On Tuesday, it was the subject of debate during the joint meeting. Neville said it was an issue that needed to be addressed with more applications coming in for workforce housing projects.

“What we’re coming back to is to encourage workforce housing restricted to that use depending on the parking,” he said. “The community would benefit from that. The comprehensive plan identifies what the community would like to happen and then the task is to check the boxes for resources to see if it can happen. Our conclusion is we see a benefit for the proposed code amendment. It reached second-reading but was sent back the planning commission.”

Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley said having the conditional use allowing non-accessory workforce housing projects provides some flexibility in approving potential projects.

“The one item we have as a tool in the toolbox is conditional use,” she said. “It’s one item where we can talk to a developer or property owner about how a project is going to impact the surrounding area. It garners a way the public can be protected. Workforce housing as a non-accessory use is a new thing for us. We thought that was the way to go.”

Planning Commissioner Palmer Gillis said having the conditional use available, if nothing else, would allow the Mayor and Council to weigh in on certain proposed seasonal workforce housing projects.

“It adds another layer of protection for the community,” he said. “If we’re 90% built out, I don’t see an undue hardship. It does give the council an opportunity to look at some of these things. As a developer, I don’t think it will be that much of a burden.”

City Solicitor Heather Stansbury, who monitored Tuesday’s joint meeting, laid out options for achieving the town’s desired goal of increased workforce housing as a non-accessory use.

“This is a good forum to flesh out these issues,” she said. “One way is to wait for the comprehensive plan update approval and wait it out. The second option is to continue to make adjustments and recognize the need.”

Councilman Peter Buas said he supported the proposed code amendment, but it was remanded for a few tweaks. Buas said he would like to see a clearer definition of the short-term and long-term rental licenses, and an exploration of providing seasonal workforce housing as a conditional use, or a special exception.

“We do want to see the ordinance back in some form,” he said. “It’s just that it seems some of these other issues need to be addressed.”

Buas made a motion to that effect, a motion that passed unanimously. As a result, the planning commission will continue to tweak the proposed code amendment and return a recommendation to the Mayor and Council based on their comments and some of the issues raised.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.