Ocean City Today

Overcrowding situation evicts J-1 students

Dozens lived in cramped quarters, some struggle to find Ocean City housing
By Katie Tabeling | Aug 03, 2017

(Aug. 4, 2017) Roughly 20 Irish students in Ocean City on J-1 visas found themselves looking for shelter two weeks ago after they were evicted from downtown Ocean City apartments for exceeding city government’s maximum occupancy rule.

“We were joking the other day that if there was a fire, we’d die because there was furniture and suitcases everywhere,” said Aoife Kennelly, a 21-year-old student. “We used to bring people in and have a laugh, ‘look at how small our apartment is.’ We thought apartments here were supposed to be that small.”

Kennelly and her friends, Cliona O’Callaghan and Leah O’Keefe, were among the dozens of Irish students living in an apartment complex on St. Louis Avenue. The trio said they found the apartment through online advertisements, where it was advertised as being able to accommodate seven to nine people.

O’Callaghan said they had no idea what the apartments maximum occupancy was until Ocean City building inspectors came knocking on July 18.

“The measured the square footage and put notices on our door that basically said the maximum occupancy was three people. There was seven people living in there,” she said.

The maximum occupancy rate in Ocean City is 40 square feet per occupant in a bedroom, with a 10-square-foot credit for closet space. Kennelly said there were more than 30 Irish students packed in the six apartments. Some of them had not signed a lease, and others were invited in by tenants.

“Say that it was advertised for eight people, and there were an extra two people because that brings the cost in,” Kennelly said. “When you get there, you think an extra two people won’t be so bad. But it’s really 10 people in a four-person.”

She added that when she signed a lease, there was no mention of the apartment’s maximum occupancy. The notice of maximum occupancy was also not posted on the door before they moved in, as per Ocean City’s rental regulations.

Ocean City handles so-called problem properties through various departments, depending on the type of violation, on a call-in basis. Only until it’s apparent the property owners are ignoring the city’s warnings does it come before the Property Review and Enforcement Strategies for Safe-housing committee (PRESS).

“PRESS is made up of building inspectors, planning department staff for issues on code violations, police for noise complaints, and the Fire Marshal’s Office for fire safety, so they can coordinate efforts,” said Councilman Dennis Dare, who serves as the committee liaison for the City Council. “For example, if Ocean City Police respond to a domestic dispute and they happen to see an inoperable smoke detector, they could hand it off the Fire Marshal’s Office. If an overcrowding situation is reported, then they can do drive-bys to see what’s going on before coming to the committee.”

Dare added there are no Ocean City provisions to assist people who suddenly become homeless like the Irish J-1 visa students.

“Some people think the government has too much authority, others want the government to solve all issues. Frankly, I think the problem belongs to the private sector and sponsors because they’re brought here to work,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the system works. Occasionally, landlords and sponsors don’t fulfill their responsibilities.”

The three Irish students said that their former landlord was given a 24-hour grace period before arranging housing for 22 of the 31 students who were evicted. Kennelly said she and her friends were placed in a two-bedroom residence on Elm Street in West Ocean City that they deemed unacceptable.

“There wasn’t a fridge, and everyone thought the landlord owned that property as well, so people refused to live out there,” Kennelly said.

“On top of that, we’d have to go over the [Route 50] bridge,” O’Keefe said. “When we were evicted, one of the girls had her manager there. When the possibility of living out in West Ocean City came up, she bought us all pepper spray. We didn’t feel safe walking across the bridge at night from day one.”

West Ocean City has no sidewalks, except on the Route 50 bridge. Delmarva Power installed LED lights on some side streets before the season began.

The girls then decided to find housing on their own again with assistance from local agencies, and landed temporary employee housing at the Gateway Hotel on North Baltimore Avenue. It was a bit of a struggle, since their immediate budget was the $480 that was refunded from their $660 per month rent check.

“It’s peak season for a lot of motels, and we’re only staying for 10 days, which is an awkward length,” O’Callaghan said. “Others have found places for the week, but after that they’re not sure where to go.”

Overall, the girls said they have enjoyed working in Ocean City and interacting with Americans during their jobs as servers at downtown restaurants or sales associates on the Boardwalk. Kennelly pointed out that her time at the downtown apartment complex created some fire-forged friends.

“Our friends that we used to live with are so generous, and offered to help, but we don’t want to get them in trouble with their landlords,” she said. “None of us felt homesick, because it was like an Irish community.”

Others have a different takeaway from the experience.

“This [the eviction] has put a damper on my experience because you’re so unsure what’s going to happen. I felt trapped because I couldn’t leave Ocean City because of work commitments and flights have been booked,” O’Keefe said. “I wouldn’t recommend Ocean City to any J-1 student.”

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