Seasonal workers return to Jersey Shore, but soaring costs mean there’s no place to live

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Time is running out for Murad Muradov.

The 20-year-old from Baku, Azerbaijan, a city on the Caspian Sea, crossed off the first thing on his list: finding a summer job. A Cape May restaurant has agreed to hire him as a bartender until mid-September.

But Muradov, one of about 4,000 people coming to New Jersey this summer on temporary work visas, worries about finding a place to live.

“I plan to stay in a hotel or motel until I can find accommodation,” he said.

Muradov is not alone.

A busy summer is about to begin and seasonal workers, like those on the J-1 student visa program, are essential during these months of the year, business owners told NJ Advance Media. But skyrocketing property values ​​on the Jersey Shore mean there are fewer housing options as previous owners have sold or transitioned to renting out to more lucrative vacationers. Finding a comfortable place with decent rent can come down to getting lucky or settling for a longer commute, business owners, real estate agents and employees said.

Providing housing for seasonal employees is an issue that predates the COVID-19 pandemic, said Michele Siekerka, CEO of the statewide employers’ organization, New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

“COVID has only exacerbated the situation,” Siekerka said. “For some of the workforce, we still have a housing crisis. We have J-1 students arriving with no place to live. And then there’s transportation, depending on where employees are housed.

Todd DeSatnick, real estate broker and owner of DeSatnick Realty in Cape May, said big companies have been providing housing for seasonal workers for at least a decade.

“Small businesses are jumping on this bandwagon to do the same, to keep these summer visitors safe,” DeSatnick said.

Morey’s Piers, which relies on seasonal workers every summer, is among the companies that own property ashore and set up temporary workers to live there. Denise Beckson, vice president of human resources at Morey’s Piers, said the company bought its first home in the 1980s and only increased inventory from there. She agreed the pandemic meant fewer options for interested homeowners.

“People who pre-COVID rented to seasonal workers knew they wouldn’t have that many seasonal workers (in 2020), so some of them sold their homes and repurposed them for tourists, offered weekly rentals or went on Airbnb,” Beckson said, noting that Morey’s Piers hasn’t sold any of its properties. “So we’ve lost a lot of inventory here in Cape May County and along of the coast based on conversations I’ve had with people.”

The return of the seasonal

Under the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the J-1 visa program, also known as the BridgeUSA Programis open to anyone outside of the United States interested in study or work here as part of a cultural exchange program.

For New Jersey, among the top destinations for J-1 visa holders, the program has provided a pipeline of summer employees — the state normally exceeds 5,000, according to State Department data.

But in 2020, at the start of the pandemic, that number dipped to just 245 due to a combination of policies put in place by the Trump administration and COVID-19 concerns. Just over 2,000 students came to New Jersey last summer and this summer businesses expect to return about 75% of normal (about 4,000 visa holders) to the program, Siekerka said. .

While visa sponsors and some employers will help arrange housing, they are not obligated to do so, said Laine A. Cavanaugh, spokesperson for Alliance for International Tradea Washington, DC-based organization that sponsors J-1 visa holders.

Fall on any one of dozens of Facebook groups dedicated to helping seasonal workers and one thing is clear: gigs are much easier to get than a place to sleep at night.

Muradov – who will be sponsored to work ashore by a non-profit organization Interchange – said he himself had appealed in a Facebook group for any available accommodation. “The state of the house is not important to me, it is important that it is close to work,” he said.

What has become a “real problem”, as one Avalon’s chief lifeguard, said it, has led to some employers providing housing themselves or helping new hires find a place to live — even if it ends up being a few towns away.

The benefits of working on the shore this summer are many: higher wages, various work perks, easy access to the beach, and a steady flow of cash for a few months. But this continued inconvenience of scrambling to find housing remains striking, real estate brokers and businesses told NJ Advance Media.

Morey’s Piers seasonal employees Nicholas Elfvin, 24, of Langhorne, PA (left) and Mike Erwin, 20, of Barnegat, stay in a house provided by Morey’s Piers while working the summer at the seaside attraction in Wildwood, NJ.Jim Lowney for NJ Advance Media

Some solutions but not enough

Morey’s Piers, a ride-along amusement park in Wildwood, typically has a total of 1,500 workers in the summer, one-third of whom are on J-1 visas. It is also home to more than 700 local and international workers, such as employees Nicholas Elfvin, 24, of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, and Mike Erwin, 20, of Barnegat, who have already moved into a home in Wildwood.

“I saw the listing on a Drexel University portal and thought living at the beach for the summer, with them providing housing, really made sense,” said Elfvin, who will work as a supervisor. amusement ride operations this summer and has $135 a week docked from his salary for his rent.

Morey’s Piers owns nine homes and partners with 15 other landlords to place employees in other nearby homes, Beckson said. The layout varies, including rooming houses divided into apartments, a converted hotel, single-family homes, duplexes and a former bed and breakfast, she said.

Beckson said not all new summer employees at Morey’s Piers are guaranteed a place to live. Determining who does this depends on factors such as age, position, seniority, and availability dates.

“Housing has become a huge barrier and challenge in coastal areas… We house both (J-1 workers and domestic workers) but we don’t have enough for everyone,” Beckson said.

Jenkinson’s in Point Pleasant also has six properties, one of which is home to 23 students. Of the approximately 700 seasonal workers it plans to have on staff this summer, about 80 will be international students whom they can provide accommodation, Jenkinson spokesman Chris Stewart said.

Providing a positive housing experience helps ensure that more workers will want to return in the future, he said. And while the total may vary, Jenkinson workers pay an average of $100 in rent each week, which includes TV, internet and utilities, he said.

“Housing is a huge issue for J-1s this year,” Stewart said. “I heard that in Cape May a company rented a house and the owner sold it. Now the company is trying to figure out how to house them. They may have to fire the workers, which would be devastating.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it’s become harder — and expensive — to find places to rent and buy on the Jersey Shore, experts said.

In Ocean County, the median sale price for a single-family home in 2020 was $325,000, but it rose more than 57% to $511,500 in April of this year, according to data from the New Jersey Association of Realtors.

Paul Ward, broker and owner of Ward Realty, which focuses on residential sales and summer rentals on the Jersey Shore, said the pandemic has caused more people to leave congested areas. Many have decided to make their second home on the shore their primary residence, which means demand has increased, he said.

“The demand for sales and purchases has increased exponentially since COVID because people are now learning that they can work remotely,” said DeSatnick, a broker with offices in Cape May, Wildwood and Lower Township. “I think this is the topic that has been going on for at least two years, where more and more people are coming to the shore. It grows exponentially every year. But it definitely increased rapidly during the COVID boom.

Estate agent Kristen Lewis of Coldwell Banker Realty in Spring Lake recently helped a group of international workers from Ireland land a rental in Point Pleasant. The yacht club where the group of employees plan to work this summer has signed the lease and the workers will pay the rent, she said.

Persistent concerns, several business leaders said, are young workers moving into apartments in poor conditions or locations far from their jobs that require them to travel by bicycle on dangerous roads to complete their shifts. work.

Beckson said domestic and international summer workers typically use Facebook or Craigslist to find a job. Some who live nearby just manage to drive their cars or ride their bikes through the streets in hopes of striking gold.

“They’re looking for the guy who doesn’t advertise on Facebook, with a little red and white For Rent sign,” Beckson continued. “And try to get out of it.”

Any long-term solution put in place, Siekerka added, will encounter its own obstacles.

“Some developers have been thinking about unique ways for the future to have mixed use to accommodate this type of housing,” Siekerka said, while discussing vacation rentals. “But the challenge is going to be that where you put that type of housing has to marry with the economy. It is very difficult to be able to take houses right in the heart of this resort area and give them away for our workers. Sometimes that’s part of the business model equation – renting them out in order to make a good return on investment for the season.

Wildwood Attraction Morey's Piers provides housing for summer workers

Morey’s Piers seasonal employees Nicholas Elfvin, 24, of Langhorne, PA (left) and Mike Erwin, 20, of Barnegat, stay in a house provided by Morey’s Piers while working the summer at the seaside attraction in Wildwood, NJ.Jim Lowney for NJ Advance Media

NJ Advance Media Writer Allison Pries contributed to this report.

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Steven Rodas can be reached at srodas@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @stevenrodasnj.

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