Developers: Here’s how to solve Central Florida’s housing crisis

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Dust swirled over the freshly paved road outside of St. Cloud. The map view showed an empty stretch of land just off the Florida Turnpike. A few houses surrounded by fields and trees, backed by the low rumble of the traffic on the highway.

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It wasn’t like that, though. Cross Prairie, as the area is likely to be known one day, was buzzing. Equipment beeped and banged, moving earth from one pile to another. Teams of workers laid pipes and lines into the ground, before being bulldozed over. Each time, a small puff of dust kicked into the air.

The once-empty field promises to hold 5,000 homes starting later this year. The new road infrastructure around it will one day accommodate 23,000 more.

“I’d like to tell you that our market study for this property was something really intrinsic,” developer Kevin Mays, chief operating officer at BTI Partners, said. “Really, we looked at an aerial map and saw that there’s housing all the way around us.”

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It’s an opportunity that will be welcomed. Orlando, like much of the nation, is crippled by a severe housing shortage caused by the millennial generation entering homebuying age at a time when baby boomers aren’t interested in selling. Realtors estimate 5.5 million more homes will be needed to ease the pressure.

Florida gets it worst of all as a highly desired destination, making it the least affordable state in the nation according to Realtor.com. It’s also considered the best state to invest in, meaning locals are priced out of the ownership market by deeper-pocketed individuals and corporations.

Developers like Mays are gaining ground, but still far behind. Home construction collapsed in the wake of the Great Recession. Starting back up was not as simple as snapping one’s fingers.

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“We started looking at this property in 2018,” he said, sweeping his hand toward the trucks beeping behind him. “We bought it in ‘19. We entitled it ‘20, started development in ‘21. Here we are still a few months away from having our first home. So it takes a long time, and a lot of things have to go right.”

Some of it is outside anyone’s control. Supply costs, labor costs and general market forces remain hard to predict and time. However, the time to get a project approved should be cut down if possible, Mays added.

He said the other hurdle he encounters is Orlando’s transportation network, which faces a funding need of billions of dollars, according to Orange County administrators. In order for thousands of homes to be worth building, they’d need access to transit hubs or arterial roads that promote easy commutes, as well as neighborhood centers within a reasonable distance.

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That’s why Orange County is encouraging voters to pass a penny sales tax increase in November, injecting $17.9 billion into its network to better serve outlying areas. The reduction in traffic, Mayor Jerry Demings explained, would lead to 140 hours per year saved for each household, plus $4,000 in gas and maintenance costs.

In the meantime, developers are doing what they can. BTI Partners’ road network around the Cross Prairie site will serve local traffic well enough, and Mays hopes FDOT will widen the Florida Turnpike in due time. His project also promotes walking, with built-in neighborhood centers that can host pools, or farmer’s markets, as well as a 94-acre urban core with office space and hotels.

“As the jobs sprawl out from the downtown area… the people that work are served by the different communities that funnel into them,” Mays said. “We need more of them, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

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