Housing issues greet exchange workers
VIRGINIA BEACH - They’ve been arriving for more than a month now – college students from Russia and Eastern Europe .
You can’t miss them. They’re flipping burgers in restaurants along Atlantic Avenue, folding T-shirts in Oceanfront souvenir shops and making beds in resort hotels.
Many say they are here to perfect their English and immerse themselves in American life.
But for some, the only cultural exchange happening these days is along neighborhood streets, as students canvass Virginia Beach communities in search of "Vacancy" or "For Rent" signs.
Finding quality, affordable housing within biking or walking distance of work is virtually impossible, some said.
"I haven’t even opened up my baggage because we don’t know where we are staying from one day to the next," Artur Dani, an Albanian student, said last week. Dani was hired by a janitorial company to clean the Boardwalk’s public rest rooms. "Of course, I am worried."
The students are arriving at a time when affordable housing is scarce in the city and across South Hampton Roads. Rental housing near the Oceanfront is in especially short supply.
To save money, some students are crowding into single hotel rooms. Others are at risk of breaking housing codes, living 10 to 15 deep in two- or three-bedroom apartments or single family houses. City inspectors cited a landlord on 23rd Street last week for packing eight students into apartments meant for no more than four.
Sometimes, banding together is the only choice, said Nurlan Kyshtobaev, who lives with 14 roommates in a three-bedroom, one-bath house. The monthly rent is $2,800. Most of the students earn about $6.50 an hour at housekeeping jobs in resort hotels. At least half have second jobs. Others are looking.
Students said they’re willing to deal with such conditions because they know their services are in demand. Local employers are recruiting them for low-wage summer-season jobs that businesses say are tough to fill with American workers.
Though the number of exchange student employees in the city is unknown, representatives from the Virginia Beach Hotel-Motel Association estimate several thousand are here. Some Beach employers estimate that more than half of the resort’s restaurant and hotel jobs will be filled until early October by foreign students.
"It’s not just getting the bodies to fill the jobs. It’s getting quality workers," said Councilman Richard A. Maddox, who began hiring foreign exchange students several years ago at his two Oceanfront Dairy Queen restaurants. This summer, 15 of his 200 workers are foreign students.
Nationally, 80,000 students came to the United States on work visas last summer, according to the U.S. State Department.
Many land at vacation spots such as Ocean City, Md., or the Outer Banks. Their visas let them work as long as four months.
Often, they apply for two and three jobs to recoup the $1,500 to $2,000 they each spend to cover airfare, visa processing and other fees.
At home, many live middle-class lives. They are aspiring doctors, lawyers and computer programmers.
In the United States, they fill jobs that many American teenagers don’t want, earning little more than minimum wage, but more than they would get at home. Dani, for example, is paid $8 an hour as a janitor, exceeding his father’s salary as a high school grammar teacher.
"My father must work two weeks to earn what I earn in one day," said Dani, who is studying economics at Marmara University in Istanbul, Turkey.
Virginia Beach’s influx of foreign students is nothing new. In the 1980s and early 1990s, students from England and Ireland came for summer jobs. But several years ago, more workers began arriving from former Eastern Bloc countries. Many fly into New York and then take the bus to Virginia Beach.
"Polish, Bulgarians, Russians," said Maria Gushthina, a Russian exchange student who works 15 hours four days a week at two Beach waitressing jobs. "Go to any Greyhound bus station in the summer and you can see them arriving every day."
Though some arrived with pre-arranged housing, others said they waited, never anticipating the expenses they have encountered. Exchange programs and employers are not required to find the students housing, said Adam Meier, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in Washington.
Some Beach employers said they can’t afford to provide housing, while others, including Maddox, said they don’t think it’s necessary. "I don’t think it makes financial sense right now," he said. "It isn’t something we’ve needed to do here."
Still, a few employers said they feel obligated to assist. At the Econo Lodge on Bonney Road, three exchange students work as housekeepers during the day and sleep for free in a hotel room that has been converted dormitory style, with bunk beds and a hot plate.
"It works well for them, and it works well for me," said Kevin Allen, operations director for Allen Management, which owns 18 hotels statewide. "I think it’s the responsibility of the employer to help them find housing one way or another.
Otherwise they’re going to be homeless."
Joe DaBiero, general manager of the Colonial Inn on Atlantic Avenue, said he tried last year to gather a list of housing possibilities and asked other employers to help. No one responded.
"We don’t have the means to provide housing in Virginia Beach," he said. "The best we can do is make sure the program is doing everything they can for them."
Students said program sponsors advised them to bring hundreds of dollars to pay for housing and other costs until they got their first paychecks. Many said they were told they would spend about $70 to $90 a week on rent. The average two-bedroom apartment in Virginia Beach rents for about $750 a month.
But in neighborhoods just blocks from the resort area, students said they are finding two- and three-bedroom rentals going for nearly triple that amount.
Tourists compound the problem. Hotel room rates climb during the summer season, as do private home rental rates.
"I didn’t think it would be this difficult," said Nusrettin Gulec, a student from Turkey, who spent $200 of his savings on a hotel room for two nights. "I don’t regret coming, but I might in a few days."
Meier and representatives of two exchange programs said they have not heard of any housing problems from any students placed in the United States.
"But if they’re having challenges, we need to hear from them so we can assist them and take stock in the situation," said Elizabeth O’Neill, vice president of work exchange programs for the Council on International Educational Exchange in Boston.
Three years ago, Radek Buchbauer started a Virginia Beach agency to help the exchange programs place students. He worries that some students are being taken advantage of by people who prey on their ignorance of American culture.
He said some are promised jobs and places to live in exchange for a fee, but they arrive to find neither have been arranged.
Other students pay deposits to landlords who keep the money but refuse to rent to them.
Buchbauer began posting names of problem landlords on his Web site to warn students off. He also discourages them from renting places with too many others. Often, his advice is ignored.
"The problem is they are looking for cheaper housing," said Buchbauer, who arrived four years ago as an exchange student from Czechoslovakia. "They know their rent will be much cheaper if there are 15 of them. They think the more students, the better."
Kyshtobaev and his 14 roommates are coping with the crammed quarters. Some sleep three to a bed, primarily mattresses on the floor.
Household rules also are posted in Russian around the home. One in blue crayon outside the bathroom loosely translates as: "If you wash yourself, wash down the floor with detergent." Showers are evening rituals only. There are too many people rushing to get ready for work in the morning.
Kyshtobaev, who is studying international law at a Moscow university, said the students are doing the best they can. "We are not here to complain," he said. "We are here to work."