Sunbelt Blues: The Failure of American Housing by Andrew Ross. Metropolitan Books, 288 pages.
There’s no shortage of places to call home, if only for a little while, in Florida’s Osceola County—plenty of sumptuous McMansions await vacationers on secular pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom, and Jimmy Buffett-themed timeshares enable visitors to buy into their own Margaritaville. Further east, squalid extended stay motels host those trying to get back on their feet, and in the woods near Shingle Creek, homeless retirees camp out under tarps strung up to keep out the rain. Certainly, there are plenty of places to stay in Osceola County. What it really lacks, as Andrew Ross makes clear in his latest book, is permanent, affordable housing: shelter attainable with the low wages paid to the service workers and Disney World employees sustaining the region’s tourism-based economy.
In Sunbelt Blues, Ross presents vignettes of the housing crisis as it manifests along one fifteen-mile strip of Osceola County’s Route 192 in order to convey a broader argument about the dynamics of the national housing market, namely the negative consequences of treating housing as a commodity in the first place. Ross is less interested in simply describing the respective conditions of the haves and have-nots as he is in understanding the market processes that have produced them. As such, Ross positions Osceola County’s poor and housing insecure as subject to a confluence of forces: the private equity capture of housing stock following the Great Recession, its continuation during the pandemic, and dismal wages paid by the hospitality industry.
Workers across the country contend with pervasively low wages and cannot find the housing they need.
One of the couples Ross describes, the Warrens, were victims of a foreclosure in 2010 and, at the time of his reporting, called a motel room home. Though they were once homeowners, Melissa Warren, a part-time worker at Disney, and her husband, a roofer, had been unable to save enough money—and their credit was too poor—to move into an apartment. “I can’t see a way out of here,” Melissa tells Ross. “I don’t want to think of us as homeless, but I suppose we are.” These scenarios are quite common in the early chapters of the book, which Ross largely devotes to those living between homes and grappling with the emotional and physical consequences of this instability.
What is most perturbing, though, is the degree of influence outside actors have on those living in Osceola. Ross offers Celebration, an affluent master-planned community built by Disney in the 1990s, as a case study. In the late aughts, a peculiar thing began happening to the fairy-tale town: parts of it began to fall apart. “If this had been a Disney fairy-tale melodrama,” Ross writes, “the blight would be the result of a spell cast by some fiendish imposter, while the return of the rightful royal owner would restore health and vitality to all. But who was the culprit here, and what were the prospects for a happy ending?”
The imposter in this story was Lexin Capital, a private equity buyer that purchased Celebration’s town center in 2004 and immediately began to strip it of equity, leveraging it as collateral to access capital to buy homes around the country. That year, it started converting Celebration’s relatively affordable downtown rental units into condominiums, allowing renters the option to make an offer. Residents soon started reporting leaking roofs, mold growth, and structural problems, but Lexin ignored them—standard operating procedure for a private equity firm looking to squeeze a quick buck from an asset. As Ross notes, these firms “are not really interested in investments that can accrue value over time. They are on the hunt for equity that can provide an outsize return within a few years, often by saddling the acquired target with debt, stripping off its most valuable assets, and discarding the rest.” In a cruel twist, many of those condos were foreclosed on during the recession; today, they might again be reconverted into market-rate rentals.
While Ross is able to speak to motel owners who house (and evict) long-term guests with no other housing options, he is unable to confront the owners of Lexin Capital or the other international and Wall Street investors buying up housing assets in Osceola County. Hoteliers who have been made landlords by default at least have to look their guests in the eye, and in many ways, despite making a profit from it, they appear to sympathize with the plight of those falling on hard times. “Their residents do not show up as numbers on a spreadsheet to be manipulated by a corporate algorithm,” Ross writes. “The owners are more aware of the uphill battle to make the rent, and the rough consequences of eviction.” There is a vanishing, an evasion of culpability, that comes with administrative distance.
The crux of Ross’s concern is that “land is increasingly traded as just another asset in the global marketplace, and rents and house prices are being decoupled from what local households can afford.” This decoupling is especially pronounced in a place that possesses seemingly infinite market value due to the power of Disney’s brand, as well as the other branded theme parks in the area. In Central Florida, annual visitors outnumber residents by over 72 million. At the same time, Disney keeps wages for its employees at the poverty level, and developers are only incentivized to build for visitors, second home buyers, and short-term renters. Prior to the pandemic, nearly a quarter of renters in Osceola County were cost burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent. Another quarter of renters pay more than 50 percent of their income in rent. Meanwhile, as Ross points out, vacation rentals in Osceola have only a 45 to 55 percent average occupancy.
This is not unique to Osceola County. Workers across the country contend with pervasively low wages and cannot find the housing they need: in 93 percent of counties in the United States, a full-time worker making minimum wage cannot afford rent on a modest one-bedroom apartment. In New York City, about 96 percent of apartments listed on StreetEasy from mid-March to the end of 2020 were considered unaffordable to essential workers, according to the New York Times. In California, a home health care aide makes on average half of what is necessary to rent a suitable market-rate apartment. All the while, the market continues churning out luxury dwellings out of reach of the very people whose essential labor sustains the economy.
The abstractions of “Housing Twitter” and diagnostic punditry feel inadequate to the scale of the problem.
Local governments lack the power necessary to improve the situation; their role is largely relegated to extracting small concessions from developers. The continual amnesiac love affair with this mode of conduct is wholly American, and particularly Floridian. Dazzled by Disney’s presentation of EPCOT in the 1960s, government officials essentially let Disney create a corporate-controlled “puppet government,” allowing it to levy its own bonds and use public resources to expand its activities. Versions of this play out again and again across the country: corporations dangle the promise of jobs and tax revenue before enamored public sector officials, who then hand out subsidies and other concessions in the hopes of transforming their communities.
In Osceola County today, the construction of new affordable housing is not in the offing. Future development in Central Florida is hitched to the promise of “high-wage jobs” and tech-centered dreams of a semiconductor factory—so it’s unlikely to benefit low-income workers. While planners quoted in Ross’s book want to rein in the sprawl and add to the county’s limited affordable housing stock, they are constrained by the developer-friendly state government, which recently banned municipalities from mandating that developers supply a percentage of affordable housing as part of any new developments, a common policy in many major cities. As Ross describes it, he has “watched the county’s planners play the cards available to them,” including providing incentives for denser, more affordable development, as well trying to find funding for this development. But the deck is stacked against them, and the presence of grassroots or institutional advocacy to move these solutions forward is often lacking.
Earlier this year, a viral Twitter thread described the competition first-time buyers face when they bid against private equity firms that can afford to pay above market rates in cash. One article downplayed the relevance of these firms relative to overall housing stock, and pointed instead to the suppression of housing production by local governments and homeowners as the real problem. While both large-scale capture of the housing market by private equity and the restriction of production are factors in today’s housing crisis, at times the abstractions of “Housing Twitter” and diagnostic punditry feel inadequate to the scale of the problem, or how it manifests in the lives of individuals and within the context of a specific place. Ross’s book seeks to achieve this visceral specificity, and while it succeeds in evoking the conditions of poverty and precarity experienced in Osceola County, it is possible that the density of the book’s broader analysis might overwhelm some readers—as much as it will intrigue planners and housing advocates.
One can look to the heroes and modest victories depicted in the book to get a sense of the types of services and movements that must continue and expand if we are ever arrive at Ross’s idealized vision of decommodified housing “centered on people’s needs and aspirations.” There is the homeless service provider tasked with serving all populations within fifteen hundred square miles due to rural neglect; there’s the reconverted Victory Village, a motel turned affordable housing complex that now provides people stable housing at affordable rates; and there are Disney union shop leaders working to raise wages.
What goes under-discussed in the book—and is especially relevant now—are the federal resources required to make the proliferation of affordable housing a reality, especially when funding mechanisms are scant even in progressive cities and states. While Ross points out that non-market solutions, such as community land trusts and social housing, could be a part of the solution in places like Osceola County, currently no public or social housing even appears on the map.
Ironically, Disney is one of the corporations lobbying to block Congress’s $2 trillion social spending package, which in its current state retains badly needed funding towards the subsidies for new affordable housing via the HOME program, repairing public housing, and towards voucher rental assistance for low income households. But the scope, scale, and reach of proposed spending has been substantially diminished to appease moderates in Congress. In Sunbelt Blues, Ross joins local and national groups in pointing towards a future where homes might be guaranteed for everyone in a country that has long immiserated its least affluent.