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How Atlantic City's rooming houses interfere with goals of Tourism District

The block of Tennessee Avenue between the Boardwalk and Pacific Avenue has seen a recent flurry of investment and redevelopment, resulting in a handful of new businesses opening their doors.

A chocolate shop, a yoga studio, a coffee house and a beer hall have joined existing merchants on the street in an attempt to breathe life into an unwelcoming area of the city in the heart of the Tourism District.

But sprinkled among the new businesses is an existing, and complicated, problem for local officials: rooming houses.

Atlantic City rooming houses 2018 map

On just one small stretch of beach-block property along Tennessee Avenue, there are four licensed rooming houses with 85 single-occupancy units and three apartments.

One block over, on Ocean Avenue, there are five licensed rooming houses, while one block in the other direction, on St. James Place, there are three.

Run-down buildings, with names such as Memphis Belle Inn and Boardwalk Guest House, are nestled alongside the fledgling businesses, creating a confusing aesthetic that leaves visitors guessing whether they are in an impoverished residential area or a blossoming business district — and the perception of a dangerous atmosphere.

Khalid Muhammad, 51, has lived at the Memphis Belle Inn for four years. He pays $150 per week from money he makes working security and as a DJ. Muhammad admits the Memphis Belle is “not the Ritz, but my quality of life ain’t bad.”

Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer  

Khalid Muhammad, 51, walks his dog, Sully, on Tennessee Avenue in Atlantic City near the Memphis Belle Inn, the rooming house where he lives.

While acknowledging some undesirable people may live in rooming houses, he took exception to the idea that “everybody who stays in a rooming house is bad.”

Muhammad said the recently opened bar on the street has created more problems for residents than vice versa, citing damage to his vehicle, public intoxication and lewdness.

“These people are drinking leaving the bar, jumping the curb (when driving away) and having sex in the alley,” he said. “But you don’t want me here.”

City records show there are 43 licensed rooming houses, while state records from the Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards list 56 licensed operators.

Although exact figures vary because the living arrangements are intended to be temporary, city officials recently estimated the total number of people living in Atlantic City rooming houses to be between 600 and 700.

The sheer number of rooming houses in Atlantic City’s Tourism District, combined with poor property management and the transient nature of their occupants, contributes to a frustration shared by many who are attempting to alter not just the resort’s image, but its reality.

Council President Marty Small Sr. said the rooming houses are a drain on city resources. Small has frequently pointed out that surrounding areas send their disadvantaged and troubled residents on a one-way trip to Atlantic City to make use of the city’s social services, which he and others have referred to as “Greyhound therapy,” in reference to the bus line.

As a result, the rooming homes very often are a magnet for criminal activity, such as drugs, prostitution and violence.

“You can’t paint all with a broad brush, but it’s certainly troubling,” said Small. “There’s a lot of pressure on our Police Department in dealing with issues.”

Police records of calls for service to the rooming houses support Small’s concern. Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 20, 2018 the Atlantic City Police Department responded to 83 calls at the Tennessee Avenue rooming houses for issues including dead bodies, drug overdoses, medical emergencies, break-ins, fights and noise complaints.

In total, the ACPD responded to more than 800 calls for service at rooming houses in 2018.

Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer  

Run-down buildings along Tennessee Avenue, with names such as Memphis Belle Inn and Boardwalk Guest House, are nestled alongside fledgling businesses, creating a confusing aesthetic that leaves visitors guessing whether they are in an impoverished residential area or a blossoming business district — and the perception of a dangerous atmosphere.

Police Capt. Rudy Lushina said rooming houses present unique challenges for the department.

Lushina said the ACPD has been meeting regularly with the city and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority — which has land-use and zoning authority in the Tourism District — to identify and implement solutions.

“Our approach is what the law allows us to do,” said Lushina. “We have a zero-tolerance (policy) that we started over the last couple of years in and around the different rooming houses.”

Lushina said the “biggest help” to the department would be for several of the rooming houses to be closed down to comply with existing law.

Both the number of people currently occupying rooming houses in Atlantic City and their proximity to one another in certain neighborhoods violate city regulations, which mirror those found in the state’s Rooming and Boarding House Act.

For one, the total number of people living in rooming homes cannot exceed half of 1 percent of the city’s population, estimated in 2018 to be 38,429.

The regulations also prohibit rooming houses within 1,000 feet of each other.

Absent being able to go in and close down a rooming house — which state and city officials said cannot be done without proper cause — a renewed focus on code enforcement is the next best step, said Dale Finch, the city’s director of licensing and inspection.

Finch said inspectors from his department have been working more diligently since 2015 to make incremental progress in addressing the issue.

“We’re creating havoc with some of these owners (of the rooming houses),” Finch said. “They know it, and that’s fine. We’re trying to clean up.”

GALLERY: Atlantic City's rooming houses

Clogged bays: N.J. extends Ocean City's dredging season

OCEAN CITY — For T.J. Heist, owner of the inflatable Totally Tubular Aqua Park, his first year in business last summer brought an unforeseen challenge — low tide paired with built-up silt in the bay meant water was sometimes too shallow for swimming. He’d be forced close shop for a few hours.

Last week, workers finished clearing out about 300 cubic yards of muck from his marina, but other bayfront homeowners had incomplete projects as a Feb. 28 deadline for finishing all dredging neared.

“I was anxious it wouldn’t get done (by then),” Heist said.

The city recently announced that the state Department of Environmental Protection extended Ocean City’s dredging season by a month, giving homeowners more time to remove sediment from clogged channels.

The deadline is now March 31, giving contractors nine months out of the year to clear the bay. Excess silt poses a danger to boats navigating the lagoons and hurts the tourism economy, residents and officials say.

The window used to be smaller, but was extended in 2017 by three months.

“If you chose not to dredge in July or August, you had a very short window,” said Doug Bergen, spokesman for Ocean City.

The Department of Environmental Protection bans work April through June, when protected fish ret urn to the Great Egg Harbor Bay, including the American shad, blueback herring, striped bass, Atlantic sturgeon and American eel. Those fish were found to migrate later.

“The timing restriction will be in place from April 1 through June 30,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna. “It’s a very productive ecosystem with numerous tributaries that provide habitat for migratory fish.”

Ocean City recently completed part of a $20 million dredging project in December after becoming the first municipality in New Jersey to receive blanket approval from the state to dredge along its entire span. Dredged material is being used for beneficial use projects in the Tuckahoe section of Upper Township.

Homeowners can piggy back off the city’s permit by contracting privately with the city’s dredge contractors and paying the costs themselves, Bergen said.

Joe Stewart, owner of Trident Marine Piling Company, said by the end of this season, he anticipates they will complete 100 private projects. His company is one of two that do all dredging for Ocean City residents, the other being Scarborough Marine Group.

The average resident removes 100 cubic yards of material, Stewart said, though it varies. Private dredging costs range from about $5,000 to $15,000.

He said the extension will help some second homeowners, who aren’t present in the winter when dredging usually takes place.

“A lot of people disappear in the winter. They’re snowbirds,” Stewart said. “We send letters to their homes, but people seem to not hear about it in time.”

The extension reduces dredging costs as well due to increased competition, said Eric Rosina, vice president of ACT Engineers.

The unit price of privately dredging a boat slip in Ocean City decreased by 10 to 15 percent from 2017 to 2018, Rosina said. About 150 homeowners in the past two years submitted dredging applications and more than 40,000 cubic yards of silt were removed.

Dredging is allowed for most of the year now, Rosina said, and there likely won’t be more extensions to the season.

“We’re up against environmental restrictions,” Rosina said. “It seems like nine months is enough.”

Schools considering potential impact of $15 minimum wage

Last summer, Vineland learned it had to cut $2 million from its budget after a decrease in state aid and a loss of additional emergency aid.

Now, the district is considering how a $15 minimum wage increase might further eat away at its financial resources.

“While we strive to protect the jobs of our hardworking women and men, and we realize that every employee deserves a livable wage, the realities of the economic situation shall require creativity and sacrifice,” said Mary Gruccio, superintendent for Vineland School District.

While the impact of recently approved legislation to raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour has obvious impacts on private business, what affect the bill will have on school districts is still being considered by education professionals.

The bill, which incrementally increases the state minimum wage from $8.85 over the next five years, passed both houses of state government Thursday. Gov. Phil Murphy indicated on Twitter that night he will sign the bill Monday.

Last week, the New Jersey School Boards Association joined the state League of Municipalities and the Association of Counties to oppose the portion of the bill that tied state minimum wage to municipal, county and school employees.

In a letter to Sen. President Steve Swe eney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, the directors of the advocacy organizations said they are working to compile data on the financial impact of the new wage.

The letter said the organizations have “no position” on increasing the state wage, but asked that state, counties, municipalities, and school districts, which all comply with the federal minimum wage requirements, continue to be exempt.

“This decades-old distinction is important because it recognizes the impact on property taxpayers. If anything, this distinction is even more critical today,” the letter read, citing the state’s 2 percent levy cap.

“Because of the reality of the levy cap, subjecting entities previously exempt from the state minimum wage will have an immediate impact on local budgets,” the letter reads.

The NJSBA in its digest to members regarding the bill said it believes the increase could increase the cost of contracted goods and services.

There are not many school employees who make less than $15 an hour, but those who do are usually teacher aides, school food-service providers and other non-certificated positions. In addition, there are various contractors for various services from supplies to personnel that may be affected by the wage increase.

Locally, the impact is still unclear. Wildwood school business administrator Martha Jamison said that the district is not concerned about a large financial impact on the budget. Jamison said one area where it could have an impact is food service, which Wildwood contracts through Chartwells.

Sodexo, another area food service provider that contracts with school districts, did not directly respond to a request for comment on the impact of the bill.

“Wages represent a large portion of our operating costs, so we will be monitoring the situation and complying with all applicable wage laws,” said Enrico Dinges, director of public relations, Sodexo North America.

Warren Fipp, director of transportation at Egg Harbor Township School District, said that the bus drivers there are paid more than $15 an hour so they would not be affected. Districts that contract their bus services may be affected, he said.

In Vineland, Gruccio said the budget process will adapt to the increases just as it does for other wage increases that are the outcomes of collective bargaining negotiations. She said the district continues to reduce its workforce through attrition and the new bill will require the district to explore partnerships with vendors.

If signed Monday, New Jersey would join California, Massachusetts, New York and the District of Columbia in phasing in the $15 rate.

Sweeney promised to revisit the bill if there are “unintended consequences” in the future.

Associated Press contributed to this report.