Affordable Housing Coming to Disney World

Walt Disney World has announced that it’s earmarking nearly 80 acres of land for a new affordable housing development in Central Florida. This post will share details about the plan, plus our commentary about Orlando’s housing crisis, skyrocketing shelter inflation, and (some of) what’s causing this.

“We are invested in working together with our community to solve complex issues,” said Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort. “The lack of affordable housing is affecting many people across our country, including right here in Central Florida. With this initiative, we’re lending a hand to make a real and meaningful impact in our community by tapping into the best of our company’s strengths. This is the right opportunity and the right time to take action.”

The development, which is expected to include more than 1,300 units, will be constructed by a third-party affordable housing developer and will be located on Walt Disney World’s land in southwest Orange County, Florida. It will offer Central Florida residents a variety of home choices that are affordable and attainable, in a great part of Horizon West near schools and the new and expanding Flamingo Crossings Town Center retail and dining complex. The development will be available for qualifying applicants in the region, including Disney Cast Members.

According to Walt Disney World, this initiative has been in the works for a while as the company has been focused on finding solutions to this challenge for quite some time.

Disney states that the company will engage with the third-party developer to bring the same innovation, expertise, and attention to detail to this initiative as to Walt Disney World’s theme parks. Here’s a video Disney released along with the announcement:

According to Walt Disney World, the work doesn’t stop here. Several years ago, Disneyland Resort led an effort to revitalize the Orange County Housing Trust that provides “last mile” funding for affordable housing projects in Anaheim.

This made the Buena Esperanza project — a converted studio apartment community for veterans and homeless individuals with mental illness — a reality. In addition to providing them a place to live, the community offers job placement and mental health and wellness support to residents.

As a result of Disney’s investment a second project, Finamore Place, in Anaheim is under construction with an expected completion date of early summer 2022. It will provide over 100 additional housing units. Disneyland Resort will continue to show support for these and other such worthy endeavors.

The Walt Disney Company also spent years investing in local nonprofits on the front lines of important causes in the community like affordable housing. Through hundreds of millions of dollars in donations, the Disney VoluntEARS program, contributions to local food banks and more. Just a few months ago, Walt Disney World donated $3 million to some of these very same organizations.

In terms of commentary, this doesn’t come as a huge surprise to us. Shelter inflation is skyrocketing, with rising rents outpacing even the red-hot housing market. You’ve undoubtedly seen or read the headlines, but in case not, here’s an article from earlier this year about astronomical rental rates. That’s from this January, and it’s only gotten worse since.

In Central Florida, this story has dominated the news, with numerous analysts showing the local market far outpacing the national average. Rent.com’s latest data shows Orlando’s average apartment increased 38% year-over-year, far above the 20% national rate and 5% typical year increase. Again, that’s as of January–and is also only one year. Since this time in 2020, rents are up even more significantly.

As this blog is wont to do, we’ve gone off-topic several times in the last few years and commented on the impact of people “fleeing to Florida” on Walt Disney World. This trend has also garnered a lot of national attention recently, but the phenomenon is actually nothing new.

Back when Annual Pass prices increased in February 2020 and the June before that (in other words, pre-pandemic), we mentioned the ongoing population explosion in Central Florida. At that time, several cities in the Orlando metro area were among the fastest growing in the United States. Many of these new Florida residents are (and were) people leaving the Northeast and Midwest.

Our commentary at the time was this: “If new home prices and construction around Walt Disney World are any indication, these transplants are also on the more affluent end of the spectrum. (Behind Magic Kingdom, there’s been a proliferation of subdivisions with no end in sight—most of these have homes starting at over $300,000 and ranging up to $800,000.)”

Those price points now seem quaint (add another couple hundred thousand dollars on), but the sentiment still rings true. And this was long before “Zoom Towns” had entered our collective vernacular. If you’ve seen any of those ‘fleeing to Florida’ stories in the news, you’re undoubtedly aware that this trend has only accelerated in the last two years. In fact, many of you might be fresh Florida transplants from the Midwest or Northeast. In neighborhoods around Horizon West, you’ll spot more Cowboys, Yankees, and Patriots pride than for any Florida franchise (yes, even the Buccaneers!).

This has disrupted the local market in a several ways. First is the obvious one–there’s a sudden surge of people and building cannot keep pace with the influx. (To the credit of D.R. Horton, Toll Brothers, etc., they are trying their darnedest!)

Second, many of these people work remotely and are not part of the local labor market. I don’t have any data to corroborate this, but my strong suspicion is that the median income of these Florida transplants who work remotely for out-of-state companies is significantly higher than the average local hospitality industry worker.

In other words, there is not enough housing supply and suddenly there’s a sharp increase in median wages–but not necessarily among those who actually, physically work in Central Florida. Even with their own wage increases, the frontline workers at Walt Disney World, Universal, SeaWorld, and wherever else simply compete with white collar professionals who work-from-home.

This also probably parallels a story you’ve seen on national news. Here’s a piece on the “Great Reshuffling” from CBS Sunday Morning last May that focuses on how the Boise housing market had been upended, largely by relocating Californians who saw that Idaho market as inexpensive relative to what they had been paying. (It has only gotten worse since then.) Same idea in Central Florida, but with Northeasterners instead of Californians.

From my perspective, Walt Disney World’s motivations are fairly obvious. This housing is needed for its own Cast Members, who will be the primary “beneficiaries” of the development. (I’d assume company employees will be given priority, and it ends up mostly just a development for displaced Cast Members.)

Moreover, if Central Florida’s unhealthy housing market continues on its current course, the company will have (even more) trouble hiring Cast Members. I’m not going to revisit the labor shortage here, but it’s certainly relevant and the motivating factor behind this move. Disney is certainly a charitable company, but this is more about fulfilling Walt Disney World’s own needs.

This is not to cast aspersions or criticize Walt Disney World. The company could simply turn a blind eye to this and lean even more heavily on the College Program, not wanting to associate itself or its employees with affordable housing.

While I think there are more underlying issues that need to be addressed, this is still an admirable move, and one that is not without risk for Walt Disney World. The media loves to connect Disney to any unpleasant headline to attract eyeballs, and exactly that could happen here if/when there are problems with this affordable housing development down the road. (It doesn’t take much an active imagination to envision future headlines with the words “Disney” and “slumlord,” regardless of reality.)

My only commentary beyond that is: build, baby, build. 

This is a good first step, but a ton more construction and reduction of red tape is necessary. While way late to the party, hopefully the Federal Reserve increasing interest rates will cut into investor activity and reverse the current, unsustainable trend of shelter cost increases. (My fear is that some of the aforementioned home builders will instead slow the pace of construction given the added market uncertainty.)

In addition to that, there need to be changes to zoning, a relaxation of excessive land use restrictions, and greater incentives for building or redeveloping commercial real estate that’s now unneeded thanks to WFH–and perhaps disincentives for investment and speculation. Of course, all of that is well beyond the scope of this post (and I should add the caveat here that this commentary is a reductionist look at the causes and consequences of rising rental prices). For now, Walt Disney World deserves kudos (as does Universal, which is doing something similar) for the initiative. It alone won’t resolve the supply/demand imbalance in the Central Florida shelter markets, but it’s a solid start.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think of Walt Disney World’s announcement that it’ll earmark ~80 acres of our land for a new affordable housing development in Central Florida? Is this a good move or bad move? A solid start, or still not nearly enough? Do you agree or disagree with our commentary? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

38 Responses to “Affordable Housing Coming to Disney World”
  1. Gypsygem May 23, 2022

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