Seasonal workers return to Jersey Shore, but skyrocketing costs means no place to live
The clock is ticking for Murad Muradov.
The 20-year-old from Baku, Azerbaijan, a city along the Caspian Sea, crossed the first thing off his list: find a summer job. A Cape May restaurant agreed to bring him on as a bartender through mid-September.
But Muradov, who is among roughly 4,000 people coming to New Jersey this summer under a temporary work visa, is concerned about finding somewhere to live.
“I’m planning to stay in a hotel or motel until I can find housing,” he said.
Muradov is not alone.
A busy summer is about to begin and seasonal workers, like those who are part of the J-1 student visa program, are pivotal during these months of the year, business owners told NJ Advance Media. But skyrocketing property values at the Jersey Shore means there’s less options for housing as former landlords have sold or shifted to renting 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, realtors and employees said.
Providing housing for seasonal employees is an issue that predates the COVID-19 pandemic, said Michele Siekerka, CEO of statewide employer’s organization, New Jersey Business & Industry Association.
“COVID has only exacerbated it,” Siekerka said. “For some of the workforce, we always have a housing crisis. We have J-1 students arriving with no place to live. And then there’s transportation, depending on where employees get housed.”
Todd DeSatnick, a real estate broker and owner of DeSatnick Realty in Cape May, said larger companies have provided housing for seasonal employees for at least a decade.
“The smaller companies are jumping on that bandwagon to do the same, to secure these summertime people,” DeSatnick said.
Morey’s Piers, which relies on seasonal workers every summer, is among the companies that own property at the shore and sets up temporary workers to live there. Denise Beckson, the vice president of human resources at Morey’s Piers, said the company bought its first house in the 1980s and has only increased inventory from there. She agreed that the pandemic has meant fewer options for interested homeowners.
“People who, prior to COVID, would rent to seasonal workers knew they weren’t going to have as many seasonal workers (in 2020) so some of them sold their houses and repurposed them for tourists, catered to weekly rentals or went on Airbnb,” said Beckson, noting that Morey’s Piers has not sold any of its properties. “So, we lost a lot of inventory here in Cape May County and up and down the coast based on conversations I’ve had with folks.”
Seasonal workers return
Under the Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the J-1 visa program, known also as the BridgeUSA Program, is open to anyone outside of the U.S. interested in studying or working 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 — with the state normally topping 5,000, according to State Department data.
But in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, that dropped to just 245 due to a combination of policies put in place by the Trump administration and concerns tied to COVID-19. Just over 2,000 students came to New Jersey last summer and this summer, businesses expect to be back at about 75% of normal (about 4,000 visa holders) for the program, Siekerka said.
While visa sponsors and some employers will help arrange housing, they’re not required to, said Laine A. Cavanaugh, a spokeswoman with Alliance for International Exchange, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that sponsors J-1 visa holders.
Stumble across any one of dozens of Facebook groups dedicated to helping seasonal workers and one thing is clear: Gigs are much easier to secure than a place to sleep at night.
Muradov — who will be sponsored to work at the shore by non-profit InterExchange — said he himself put a callout in a Facebook group for any available housing. “The condition of the house is not important to me, it’s important that it is close to work,” he said.
What’s become a “real problem,” as one lifeguard chief in Avalon put it, has led to some employers providing housing themselves or setting out to help new employees secure somewhere to live — even if it ends up being a few towns away.
The upsides of working at the shore this summer are plentiful: higher wages, various work perks, easy beach access and a steady stream of money for a few months. But this ongoing downside of scrambling to find housing remains stark, real estate brokers and businesses told NJ Advance Media.
Some solutions but it’s not enough
Morey’s Piers, a boardwalk amusement park in Wildwood, typically has a total of 1,500 workers in the summer — a third of which are J-1 visa holders. It also houses over 700 local and international workers on its own like employees Nicholas Elfvin, 24, of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, and Mike Erwin, 20, of Barnegat, who already moved into a house in Wildwood.
“I saw the listing on a Drexel University portal and I thought living at the beach for the summer, with them providing housing, really made sense,” said Elfvin, who will work as a ride operation supervisor this summer and has $135 a week docked from his paycheck for his rent.
Morey’s Piers owns nine houses and partners with 15 other property owners to place employees at other nearby homes, Beckson explained. The setup varies, including rooming houses split into apartments, a converted hotel, single-family homes, duplexes, and a former bed and breakfast, she said.
Beckson said not every new Morey’s Piers summer employee is guaranteed a place to live. Determining who does depends on factors such as age, position, tenure and dates of availability.
“Housing has become a huge hurdle and challenge in the shore areas … We house both (J-1 workers and domestic workers) but we don’t have enough for everyone,” said Beckson.
Jenkinson’s in Point Pleasant also owns six properties, one of which houses 23 students. Of the approximate 700 seasonal employees it expects to have on staff this summer, about 80 will be international students they can provide housing for, Jenkinson’s 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 can vary, Jenkinson’s workers pay on average $100 for rent each week which includes TV, Internet and utilities, he said.
“Housing is a massive problem for the J-1s this year,” Stewart said. “I heard in Cape May a company rented a house and the owner sold it on them. Now the company is trying to find out how to house them. They may have to turn the workers away which would be devastating.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it’s only become more difficult — and expensive — to find places to rent and buy at the Jersey Shore, experts said.
In Ocean County, the median sale price of a single-family home in 2020 was $325,000, but that’s increased by more than 57% to $511,500 as of April this year, according to data from the New Jersey Association of Realtors.
Paul Ward, broker and owner of Ward Realty, which focuses on Jersey Shore residential sales and summer rentals, said the pandemic led to more people moving out of congested areas. Many decided to make their second homes at the shore their primary homes — meaning demand went up, he said.
“The demand for sales and purchases has increased exponentially since COVID because people are now learning that they can work from afar,” said DeSatnick, a broker with offices in Cape May, Wildwood and Lower Township. “ I think this has been the topic now going on at least two years where more and more people are coming to the shore. It’s exponentially growing every year. But it definitely grew quickly during the COVID boom.”
Real 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 plans to work this summer signed the lease and the workers will pay the rent, she said.
Ongoing concerns, several business leaders said, are young workers settling for apartments in bad conditions or places far from their jobs that force them to travel on bikes down dangerous roads to make their shifts.
Beckson said domestic and international summer workers typically use Facebook or Craigslist to find a place. Some who live nearby find success simply driving their car or riding their bike down streets hoping to strike gold.
“They look for the guy who’s not advertising on Facebook, with a little red and white For Rent sign out front,” Beckson continued. “And try to work it out.”
Any long-term solutions put in place, Siekerka added, will be met with their own hurdles.
“We’ve had some developers thinking of unique ways for the future of how to have mixed-use in order to accommodate this type of housing,” Siekerka said, while discussing seasonal rentals. “But the challenge is going to be that where you put this type of housing has to marry to the economics. It’s very difficult to be able to take some houses right in the heart of that resort area and give them up for our workers. Sometimes that’s part of the business model equation — renting out those in order to make a good return on investment for the season.”
NJ Advance Media staff writer Allison Pries contributed to this report.
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