Homeless at the Gates of Disney World

Osceola County, Florida, begins at the Southern
gates of Disney World and stretches down U.S. Route 192, a drag lined with mini-malls,
evangelical churches, flea markets, pawn shops, and dollar stores. In his new
book, Sunbelt Blues: The Failure
of American Housing, Andrew Ross describes the county’s two distinct
housing markets: There is the 15-bedroom home in Reunion that rents for $50,000
a week for VIP Disney visitors, and there are the $40 motel rooms for those
turfed out of their apartments. The second market is much larger. One in every 100
homeless children in the United States lives in the Orlando metropolitan area.
Some people who can no longer pay the motel rates set up camp in the nearby swamp—it
is not bad compared to the noise, drug deals, and bedbugs of the motels: that
is, if the alligators stay away. Motels, campsites, and parked cars on Route 192 house much of the informal labor force that keeps the magical
kingdom and the area’s tourism economy running, but far from the gates of the
palace. Sunbelt Blues tells the story of those barely hanging onto a
home in the shadow of America’s leading corporate producer of fantasies.It wasn’t meant to be this way. In the 1990s, the
Disney Corporation developed the model suburb of Celebration in Osceola County.
It was both a conversation piece about what the ideal American community should
look like and a canny foray into residential real estate for a tourism
destination surrounded by rising land prices. And to the planners’ credit,
they wanted to use the new town to put New Urbanist thinking into practice. With
its mixed commercial and residential uses, pedestrian-friendly streets, and
cutting-edge postmodern architecture by the likes of Philip Johnson and Michael
Graves, Celebration promised a bit of a reprieve from banal, unwalkable suburbia.  Ross, a cultural studies professor and arts
activist, wrote a book about Celebration 22 years ago, uncovering some of the
early tensions in a place heralded as a high-minded experiment. Sunbelt
Blues is a kind of ethnographic revisit: a check-in with old research
subjects to see how things are going. The answer is discouraging. The
intervening decades have left the town a waterlogged, weather-beaten version
of its former self. Once featured in the pages of Architectural Digest,
it is now reported on as an example of what happens when vultures from Wall
Street gobble up condominiums, load up debt, and skimp on maintenance (even on leaky
roofs that let in the copious Florida rain). Yet, as Ross discovers through several years of
living in “last resort” motels up and down Route 192, Celebration residents are the
lucky ones. The more common situation in Osceola County is tremendous housing
insecurity, even for those fortunate enough to be employed smiling for visitors
in front of the blue-turreted Cinderella Castle. Sunbelt Blues
details a new housing economy split between luxury Airbnbs and mansions with
three-car garages and, just a few miles away, weekly rental motels, trailer
homes, and campsites. It is no accident that the divide is deepening in a place
with rising property values and a major employer that pays poverty wages for
intense physical and emotional labor. Like a medieval castle, Disney World relies
on an illusion, where the comfort of the feted guests is sustained by staff who
can barely get by in packed garrets, cellars, and even camps out near the edge
of the ramparts.Most people do not think of motels when they
imagine homelessness. Someone who is homeless is often pictured as middle-aged,
unemployed, and male, with substance abuse issues, sleeping rough in a park or
under a bridge. Yet homelessness is a spectrum. One of the fastest-growing
groups of people without housing is older women lacking pensions. First denied
a spot in the labor market, or paid lower wages than their male co-workers, older
women face more vicissitude as they age, even if they make it to the Sunshine
State, America’s retirement mecca. Others who are struggling to survive in the
motels of Route 192 are the underemployed, people with drug problems, those with
bad credit, or hurricane refugees from Puerto Rico.Many without long-term housing do have
consistent work: Their jobs just pay so poorly that making a deposit and
monthly rent for an apartment is impossible. Some of the unhoused even work for
Disney and, as Ross points out, the “grim living conditions make for a stark
contrast with the cheery emotional labor required from cast members.” Housing
insecurity involves couch surfing, sleeping in cars, getting a cut-rate motel
room, living in an R.V., or pitching a tent. All of these means of securing
affordable housing are endangered as land prices go up and building
conventional housing becomes more profitable. When Ross visits those living on
undeveloped marshland near the interstate, he finds complex communities, frequently
of older people chatting about social security, Medicaid, and prescription
drugs from their tents. Heartbreakingly, he also encounters people who have
gone there with terminal illnesses waiting to die while seeking pharmacological
solutions for their intense pain. While shanties spring up in the woods,
Florida’s real estate market is on fire, with home prices at an all-time high
and new construction breaking ground wherever land is available. “The biggest
transfer of this property wealth has occurred in Sunbelt states whose economies
are fueled by an unwholesome cocktail of breakneck growth, hands-off
regulation, depressed wages, and real estate speculation,” Ross tells us.
Indeed, it is the Houstons, Orlandos, and Phoenixes that have boomed in recent
years, with corresponding problems for those who are housing insecure. Many have
suffered traumatic childhoods, addiction, and domestic abuse, adding immense
psychological strain to the already heavy burden of poverty. The motels and
then the illegal campsites of Route 192 are a last stop on a slide down the
economic ladder, sometimes rationalized by those whose spiral has led them
there:  Exposed to a
variety of threats and harms, and at the mercy of Florida’s storms, hurricanes,
and pitiless summer heat.… They make the most of their situation by developing
views and beliefs that make it seem more voluntary—“life inside four walls is
too claustrophobic for me”—but in most cases, they also admit that they would
take a more comfortable or stable haven if it came their way.         
The extended-stay motels and informal campsites are
both hidden in Florida’s economy: One group lives as pretend tourists, the
other is obscured by palms and split oak trees. While the state markets itself
as a place to retire in giant geriatric preserves like The Villages (a
master-planned 55-plus community of over 130,000 people), many older people
also live in places like the unbecoming strip of Route 192, constantly worrying
about where they will sleep next. The motel owners in Osceola County thought they were buying into the booming low end
of Disney tourism, before they became de facto social service providers. Motels—which in Florida and nationally are often
immigrant-owned small businesses—have become the unintentional stopgap for
state programs placed on anemic funding by governors like Ron DeSantis, and
Rick Scott before him. The motel owners in Osceola County, many of them South
Asian immigrants, frequently thought they were buying into the booming low end
of Disney tourism, before they became de facto social service providers. They
often divided their buildings in half: Long-term residents on one side and
daily-rate tourists on the other. With the bust in tourism during the pandemic
and the increase in unemployment, many motel owners found themselves running
private shelters for people at risk of homelessness. Ross says he was usually
placed on the “vanilla” side of the hotel due to being nonpermanent, but he
would make his way over to the other side. “A motel is where you’re supposed to
be on vacation,” one woman told him, continuing: “This is not a normal place to
live, especially to raise a kid.” At the same time, many motel residents offer
mutual support and easy socialization: making the best of what they know is not
yet the worst. Florida is the epicenter of America’s perverse new
real estate reality. Prices boomed after a scarring 2008 subprime bust, luxury
seaside villas sell at a premium in areas already flooding, and enormous wealth
is co-located side by side with destitution. It is also a favorite place for
hedge-fund housing buy-ups that have financialized real estate beyond any
previous reckoning. The 2008 crisis was supposed to create accountability when
it came to trading mortgages on global markets. What actually happened was that
a temporary devaluation sent institutional buyers into depressed markets, like
Orlando, with billions of dollars in funds in one hand and eviction notices in
the other. While Ross completed this book largely before the pandemic, he makes
it painfully clear that investors are once again circling distressed homeowners
who are behind on their mortgages. They have even acknowledged building up
their cash reserves to snap at deals when eviction moratoriums expire. While the book is anchored in the decline of
Celebration and the housing chaos of Route 192 just past its borders, the mouse
ears nearby cast a big shadow. When Disney began to plan its flagship theme park
in the 1960s, the Florida legislature vested the company with powers similar to
an independent county’s. It was granted the right to behave like an autonomous
city and soon began doing just that. Building Celebration seemed like a natural
extension of these privileges and a demonstration of private managerial
capacity. That is, until corporate control ran the community into the ground
and devalued local homes.Since then, Disney World has alternated between
treating its neighbors and employees as part of a utopian undertaking and entirely
ignoring them. Celebration at first was a mixed socioeconomic community with
more affordable rental apartments interspersed with designer homes, all with a
shared downtown that was lively and walkable. However, it never resembled a “company
town.” This was both a good and a bad thing: There was never the fearsome control
and price-fixing of Western mining towns, but nor did Celebration provide the subsidized
housing and cultural amenities of places like the nineteenth-century city of Bournville, near Birmingham, U.K., created by chocolate-maker Cadbury. It was a real estate
venture, not a solution for employee housing.Celebration’s quick sale to Lexin Capital in 2004
dismembered the experiment before it even started, forking over the heart of
the city for the low sum of $21 million. The private equity firm quickly sold
off parking lots and undeveloped areas, decreasing amenities for residents.
It also converted rental apartments into condos, reducing affordability and
potentially affecting the class composition of Celebration. However, if Lexin had ever planned to make the town more affluent, it failed: Lawsuits,
corporate debt, and deferred maintenance were all heavily publicized, and today
Celebration is more populated with those who cannot leave due to lack of funds
rather than residents attracted to the experiment, its architecture, or its investment
potential. Disney’s willingness to pawn off its high-minded urbanist
experiment for almost nothing and risk reputational damage due to subsequent
mismanagement shows the corporate mentality of the past two decades: Long-term
investments are not worth it, no one cares about anything but the bottom line, living wages and housing are someone else’s problem.  The coda to Ross’s adroitly written book focuses on
the continued fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Higher housing prices, less
job security, and the search for work across state lines may normalize the
peripatetic life of weekly motel rentals for the working class priced out of
cities. A home is increasingly a thing that some people only dream about, while
others own several and profit from listing them on apps: cleaned, booked, and
banked-on from their smartphone. While the pandemic has led to more housing
insecurity, it has not prompted new approaches to creating affordable housing
at the state level. Florida is the optimal place to understand what’s gone so
terribly wrong with housing. There is a lack of supply; statewide laws prohibit
rent control; and counties resist building shelters, hoping to push the unhoused
onto their neighbors; but the biggest problem may be that the state is a
low-lying, flood-prone peninsula raked by hurricanes from both sides. The question of why Florida is still one of America’s
fastest-growing states is perplexing. Some Floridians are frank about the risks.
One tells Ross that Osceola County is a good bet because development in
Central Florida can serve as a fallback for when Miami sinks underwater in
the next half-century. When that happens, a dilapidated motel room may sound
pretty nice for climate refugees heading north. Until then, Florida’s solutions
to the affordable housing crisis are pure Disney: fantastical. 

2021-11-10 | critical mass, Books, Culture | English |