When Zhazira Kabdrakhmetova and Yelena Shinkarova boarded a plane from Kazakhstan to New York City in mid-May, they thought their summer plans to work on Cape Cod were all set.
But when the 21-year-olds — here through the J-1 visa program for seasonal student workers — landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport and connected their cellphones to WiFi, they were in for an unpleasant surprise.
During their flight, their residential host backed out, leaving them no housing.
“It was a bit shocking,” said Kabdrakhmetova.
After some frantic messaging, the pair were able to secure housing in Yarmouth through a new program at the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, which connects J-1 visa students to hosts. And now they can bike to their jobs at a local Dunkin’.
But the episode highlights the dual dilemma facing Cape tourism businesses in the summer: a labor shortage made worse by the region’s shortage of affordable housing.
Foreign students such as Kabdrakhmetova and Shinkarova have become an essential part of the Cape’s summer economy. More than 4,200 are expected to come this year, staffing grocery stores, resorts, and restaurants.
The J-1 program requires participants to find a place to stay — with host families, employer-provided housing, or their own apartments — before they arrive. But as home prices have climbed and apartments have been converted to short-term rentals, suitable lodging has become harder to find. The same is true for year-round workers.
This year, the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce received $155,000 from the state to hire housing coordinator Christina Arabadzhieva to help solve the problem. In her first four months, the chamber has been able to place 90 J-1 visa students and identified about 50 new hosts.
“We’ve all heard horror stories about where some of the international workers have been living on the Cape during the summer as part of the workforce,” said chamber CEO Paul Niedzwiecki. “We want to make sure that’s not the case.”
Many J-1 students find housing on their own through Craigslist, Facebook, or word-of-mouth. That can be a crapshoot, with some arriving to find out their accommodations don’t exist or are far from what was promised.
“Nothing’s more desperate than needing a house to live in,” said Donna Dodge, an Orleans resident who agreed to host a J-1 visa student at the last minute.
Arabadzhieva is putting out fires every day. In one day alone in June, she received three urgent e-mails asking for help finding suitable housing.
One came from a J-1 student seeking help for herself and two friends who thought they’d rented a place with a kitchen, laundry, balcony, and a room with three beds. But when they arrived, they didn’t even have a closet. The housing was in an area without streetlights, making walking home at night dangerous.
“We are really scared and practically homeless,” it read.
Ilmurat Iskhakbaev, who also came here from Kazakhstan to work this summer, has had trouble getting housing, too.
“My first impression when I came up to Cape Cod, it was, honestly, it was bad,” said Iskhakbaev.
The 19-year-old found housing when he was in Kazakhstan and texted a landlord who sent photos of the room in his house. It looked good.
“But when I came to the home, it was dirty,” Iskhakbaev said. Also, the man had two dogs he hadn’t mentioned. That was disconcerting; in Kazakhstan, dogs typically live outside.
Iskhakbaev had a bad feeling.
Then, on his first trip to nail down a job at the Hot Chocolate Sparrow, a coffee and bakery in Orleans, Iskhakbaev became lost on the bike ride home. With his phone battery down to 1 percent, he knocked on a random house for help.
He told the family that he was a J-1 student, and they welcomed him inside immediately. While he charged his phone, they gave him a snack and talked.
“I loved them,” said Iskhakbaev.
Even before he got back to his room, Iskhakbaev contacted Arabadzhieva at the chamber for help, saying he couldn’t stay there, especially after the landlord charged him $20 for a short car ride.
The entire experience was off-putting for Iskhakbaev, who traveled to the United States alone.
But Iskhakbaev says he’s glad to be here. He has jobs at the Hot Chocolate Sparrow, Stop & Shop, and Dunkin’. The money he makes will go toward future travel.
Bigger employers, such as the Chatham Bars Inn, rely heavily on the J-1 program. The hotel will hire more than 100 workers on the visas this summer, on par with pre-pandemic numbers. Besides their earnings, students gain new skills and enjoy a fun cultural exchange with year-round workers and guests, said Danyel Matterson, director of human resources at the beach resort.
“But they absolutely do fill a void where our labor shortage is,” she said. “We are very fortunate that we’re able to attract the J-1 students to our company to work.”
Chatham Bars Inn leases several buildings, including a motel, to provide beds for workers. That helps when it comes to hiring, Matterson said.
“All the resorts and restaurants are competing against each other,” said Matterson. “Housing was a big one. A real big one.”
Cape restaurants are already in a bidding war for local talent, said David Troutman, co-owner of the Scargo Cafe in Dennis. He can house six J-1 students in a building he purchased next to the restaurant about two decades ago.
“Could I survive without them?” asked Troutman. “I suppose I would have to, but it wouldn’t be pretty.”