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Walt Disney World dedicated nearly 80 acres to a massive affordable housing project near its Orlando park. But Orange County NIMBYs aren’t having it

Disney is fondly considered the happiest place on earth. But for Orange County residents who live within just miles of Walt Disney World, that affection is souring thanks to an affordable housing project slated to open within the next couple of years. 

Almost two years ago, Walt Disney World announced it was dedicating nearly 80 acres of land for a new affordable housing project in Orange County, which would include about 1,400 units of mixed-income housing. At least 1,000 of them would be reserved as “affordable” for residents earning 50% to 100% of the median income, or up to about $70,000. Disney still owns the land, but is working with developer The Michaels Organization to build more housing for “cost-burdened renters” in central Florida.  

But some residents are objecting to the project, concerned it could add congestion to the area and pressure on its public school system, according to an Orlando Sentinel report. 

“They’re trying to pack an enormous amount of density into what is essentially the size of a Costco parking lot,” Alex Cabrera, who lives less than two miles from the future development, said during a planning and zoning board meeting last month, according to the Sentinel. “It’s just way too much.” The average footprint of a Costco store plus its parking lot is 14 to 16 acres, however, according to Costco.

But on Tuesday, Orange County commissioners voted to move forward with the development, and the plan will be reviewed by the Florida Department of Commerce and other state agencies.

“We are responding to Orange County leadership’s call to bring more positive change to our community and have a plan that will make a meaningful impact,” Tajiana Ancora-Brown, director of external affairs for Walt Disney World Resort, told Fortune in a statement. “We are pleased with [the] vote and look forward to continuing our efforts to bring affordable housing to Central Florida.”

Just the latest target of NIMBYs

The U.S. has been in a housing crunch for a while—and affordability remains a concern as rents stay high, mortgage rates stay elevated, and home prices continue to rise. That’s why communities like Orange County are in dire need of affordable housing units like the one Disney is backing. 

Other groups including hoteliers, Habitat for Humanity, and a school teachers union have also openly supported the development, planned for a part of the county called Horizon West, but for locals, it’s a tough pill to swallow. These Orange County residents are just the latest example of a wave of NIMBYism—or “not in my backyard,” an attitude plaguing America that has blocked more housing development in already established areas. 

“NIMBYism is real, and failing to secure buy-in from the community adds time, cost and uncertainty,” Tom Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, said in a November 2023 speech.

While an Orange County commissioner said during the planning and zoning meeting that her constituents are being wrongly painted as NIMBYs, they still said the area isn’t ready to absorb more people.

“We are not in a position to put more human beings in an area that isn’t ready for them,” District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson said during the meeting, according to WMFE, a local NPR station. “I think we have this perception that affordable housing is the goal. And yes, it should be affordable, but it should also come with all the things we need for it to be successful.”

But like many other NIMBY cases, there are only a few loud voices speaking for a large community. Indeed, only about 30 residents out of Orange County’s population of 1.4 million showed up to the recent planning and zoning board meeting to air their grievances. Organizations including the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, Orlando Economic Partnership, and the West Orange Chamber of Commerce submitted letters of support for the project. 

“Currently many of the businesses we represent are struggling to recruit and retain workers due to the limited supply of affordable and attainable housing in Orange County,” Stephen Lewis, president and CEO of West Orange Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a support letter. “Ensuring affordable housing is available for West Orange residents is critical to the success of our county and will help grow small businesses and bring long-awaited amenities to the residents of Horizon West.”

More about the project

The groundbreaking for the affordable housing project is set for this year, but the first units wouldn’t be available until 2026. While Disney cast members are able to apply to live at the development, it’s open to any Orange County residents who meet the income requirements. An Orange County family of two making between roughly $35,000 to $70,000 would qualify, according to HUD data.

At least 1,000 of the units would be reserved as “affordable” for residents earning 50% to 100% of the area’s median income.

Courtesy of Disney

Although critics say the new development would put pressure on surrounding schools, Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) determined that they’ll have capacity by the time the development actually opens. The housing development is expected to add another 206 elementary, 94 middle, and 116 high school students to the district, an OCPS information officer told Fortune. Plus, there are plans to add two more elementary schools that would serve that area. And the developer, The Michaels Organization, has committed to pay millions of dollars in impact fees to the county to use for public infrastructure and services, including roadway updates, school capacity, public safety needs, and more. 

Disney’s only role in the development is contributing the land—and the company says it won’t profit from the development. The Michaels Organization will build, own, and operate the development and will privately finance it.

“This initiative has been in the works for several years as the lack of affordable housing is affecting many people across our country, including those who live and work in Central Florida,” according to Walt Disney World. “This project is the right opportunity and the right time to take action.

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