Ocean City Today

West OC housing attractive to J-1s

Space, crowding concerns less prevalent over bridge than in Ocean City proper
By Katie Tabeling | Jul 06, 2017
File Photo

(July 7, 2017) Roughly 20 young adults, half of them J-1 visa students, live in a house off Golf Course Road in West Ocean City, and according to some of them, it’s preferable to living in Ocean City.

“I definitely don’t feel overcrowded,” said Elena Rotareanu, a 21-year-old from Moldova who is spending her second summer with the J-1 visa program here. “United Work and Travel found this house last year, and I had the option to change it this time, but I didn’t want to. I had the same number of roommates last year, and we became lifelong friends. Even now, we keep texting each other.”

Rotareanu is one of nine women using a bedroom divided into two sleeping areas: one with two beds and a larger room with four bunkbeds. Overall, the house has six bedrooms and three bathrooms, and a spacious kitchen and living room.

“I know there’s houses that are overcrowded, but that is not the case here,” Rotareanu said. “This is OK because the house is really big.”

Her roommate Sky Wongngamleam, a 20-year-old Thai student, said it was a step up from her previous living situation on First Street in Ocean City. She and 15 other women from Thailand arrived in Ocean City in May to live in a series of apartments.

She and two other women had planned to live in one unit that they ultimately rejected.

“I didn’t see it before I signed a contract [with the agency]. The first day I saw it, it was very bad and dirty. The door didn’t lock and electricity didn’t work. The bed didn’t have pillows or blankets,” Wongngamleam said. “It didn’t look ready to stay.”

The apartment’s front door lock was smashed in, and pieces of the door jamb were falling out. There was no showerhead, leaving a pipe to stream water in the bathroom. One room had a hole in the floor.

Wongngamleam said that she called her out-of-area sponsoring agency that night, as well as the emergency number, but did not got a call back. Instead, she got more support at her job in West Ocean City.

“We came for orientation and told the manager, and they tried to get us new housing,” she said. “Some coworkers were asking customers, and one woman said that she had a place.”

In the past few years, city officials and sponsors have found that J-1 visa students, who are vital to summertime businesses, are moving across the Route 50 bridge because of the housing shortage in Ocean City.

United Work and Travel Program Director Anne Marie Constabile said that the main problem is finding housing that is close to her students’ place of employment.

“The jobs are primarily in Ocean City, so students refuse to live in West Ocean City for the most part,” she said in an email. “There definitely is a shortage of housing in Ocean City proper, but there are plenty of houses available for students in West Ocean City. The commute … can be problematic.”

Delmarva Power installed LED lights on some streets in West Ocean City before the summer. Tentatively, the State Highway Administration has plans to create a hiker/biker path from Route 611 to the bridge. But ideas to expand the walkway on the Route 50 bridge for bikers and pedestrians ended abruptly in an Ocean City sub-committee last fall.

Wongngamleam said that she crashed her bicycle when she was on her way from the apartments on Second Street to her job in West Ocean City. But now that she lives blocks away, it’s a better situation.

“I’m OK biking now. I work at a fast food place until 10 in the evening, so maybe I’m used to it [the commute],” she said.

Ocean City has also taken an interest in stopping overcrowding in rental units since last year, and sponsors like United Work and Travel refuse to house students in buildings that don’t have a rental license.

To receive a rental license, a property owner must have the building inspected and have its occupancy rate determined. In Ocean City, maximum occupancy is 40 square feet per person in a bedroom and a 10 square-foot credit for closet space. Applications cost $141, including the noise control permit.

Regulation in West Ocean City is less strict. According to Worcester County public information officer Kim Moses, anyone seeking to rent rooms to four or more people for less than six months outside city limits, must apply with the county Development Review and Permitting. The application must be signed by the county commissioners.

If property owners are renting rooms to fewer than four people for a time less than half a year, they are not required to apply.

But that doesn’t mean that West Ocean City landlords for the J-1 students aren’t attentive. Rotareanu said that their landlord will fix their sink by the end of the week. The one time the landlord could not quickly fix an issue was when the ceiling in Rotareanu’s room leaked last year. The landlord was on vacation.

“We moved into a different room, and she fixed it when she came back,” she said. “This year, I saw that she repaired the entire bedroom, and I was like ‘wow!’”

Another reason that Ocean City is undergoing a housing crisis regarding the international workers is supply and demand. The island is small, and often rental units go to families or American students here for Senior week. This market can pay more than the J-1 students to use the space for vacations.

Rotareanu, who is studying fuel production back in Moldova, said a cultural experience is expensive.

“I had to pay $3,000 to the sponsor for the documentation and the plane ticket and another $250 to find housing,” she said. “Some places pay very little, like $8.25 an hour compared to the Americans at $15.”

In general, Rotareanu said she’s fortunate in terms of housing and job opportunities. She works as a cashier in West Ocean City and Ocean City, where she can interact with locals and visitors on a daily basis.

Some of her friends aren’t so lucky.

“I have a friend that had a job offer in a restaurant that he paid for, and he worked there for a week. They said, ‘Sorry, we’re slow, so we fire you.’ That’s not how it should be. His visa is dependent on a job offer,” she said. “Another friend just quit his job because they put him to work in a freezer opening crabs all day. What kind of cultural experience is that? This is not how you treat a human.”

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