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.
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.”
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.
Staff at the Comfort Inn on the Black Horse Pike became accustomed to seeing guests sell nar…
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.
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.”
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