ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Elizabeth Dang said she saw Orlando’s housing crunch coming as far back as 2016.
“Even then, it was clear that the population was growing faster than the amount of housing that was being built,” she recalled. “That’s just gotten more noticeable over the last five years.”
Dang is no armchair quarterback, though. The 17-year employee for the Orlando City Government worked her way up from a low-ranking member of the planning department to planning division manager.
While she doesn’t have a vote on the city commission, she oversees the department that makes recommendations to elected officials, meaning she has influence over the city’s response to the skyrocketing prices.
According to the Orlando Regional Realtor’s Association, housing prices rose to a record median $325,000 in October. Websites that track rental prices also report record highs.
Along with the massive number of people moving in, Dang said another set of inflated prices was hindering developers’ ability to catch up: lot prices.
“It can be very expensive to build in a central city,” she said. “That’s part of what makes it more difficult to build here versus further out.”
Zillow listings for developable land or lots marketed toward development show asking prices close to $2.7 million dollars per acre. That’s before demolition costs.
Dang said city officials made two recent changes to encourage more density in the core of the city. First, Orlando now allows practically all homeowners to build Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), often called granny flats or garage apartments, on their properties.
The units can be rented to family members or long-term tenants, giving the homeowners another source of income and providing density to desirable neighborhoods without changing zoning regulations.
Second, the city relaxed rules for developing townhouses.
“It’s much easier to find a site to build townhomes and much easier to design them to meet code,” Dang said. “We have seen an increase in the number of townhomes being built.”
An increase, but not enough. Dang said the city receives 150 applications for townhomes each year, and 100 applications for ADUs.
While the number of ADU applications doubled recently, it’s not enough to make a dent in the larger crunch when a single multifamily apartment building can provide hundreds of units at a time. Activist groups are pushing for more dramatic changes to local zoning codes to encourage density, but Dang said the changes that have been made are important.
“It can fill a need in a part of town where you can’t find five acres for a large development,” Dang said.
City staff see relief when the market eventually cycles downward, though traditionally that’s happened during recessions where many people lose their jobs.
Dang said the housing problem was the better of the two to her experience.
“I do think it’s going to be a long-term solution and making sure that local governments work together so that the city of Orlando is growing, but so are some of the other nearby jurisdictions so that one doesn’t become a kind of an enclave of no growth,” she said.