Ground breaks on Universal's new affordable housing project in Orlando
The name Universal, often linked to movies, theme parks, and resorts, will now also be linked to another industry — housing.
Public and private partners broke ground Wednesday for a new housing complex on Destination Parkway in Orlando, that will offer 1,000 new living spaces, 75% of which will be kept as affordable.
The community, called Catchlight Crossings, will be developed on 20 acres of land near International Drive donated by Universal. As Central Florida grapples with an affordable housing crisis, where people who work in the area can't afford to live locally, John Sprouls, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Universal Destinations & Experiences, said the project was an organic move for the entertainment and hospitality giant.
"Universal has been part of the Central Florida community for over 30 years, so being in tune with and understanding and giving back to the communities, where not only guests but our team members live and work and play is tremendously important to us," he said.
The $350 million project has been three years in the making, and has dozens of organizations, developers, companies, and nonprofits as partners to make it happen. Orange County leaders allocated $7 million in funding from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, as part of the county's Housing for All Task Force.
Wendover Housing Partners will be taking on the project. Founder and CEO Jonathan Wolf said Universal could have turned the space into another resort in the tourist district. Instead, the company chose to make invest in a "unique" community opportunity. Universal provided the developers a 99-year ground lease, which should ensure the community stays affordable for generations.
"Nothing like it in the United States," Wolf said. "And the economics were never available until Universal came out and said, 'For $1 we will place these 20 acres.'"
Universal Parks & Resorts and partners are calling Catchlight Crossings a “one of a kind” project. Indeed, the mixed-income, mixed-use project is ambitious — it will include residential units available for people of very low to above average median income, it will also include a Bezos Academy for children, its own healthcare facility, and space for University of Central Florida to conduct classes.
The manager of Orange County Housing and Community Development, Mitchell Glasser, said affordable housing will be offered for very low incomes of 30% AMI, all the way up to 120% AMI, although rents will cap at 100% AMI.
"We're really excited because this project is really a different model for Central Florida and affordable housing," Glasser said. "This kind of project can really help build up a family and help our community start to solve the housing struggles that we face."
Orange County Mayor Demings said the community will eventually be just a few minutes away from Brightline and SunRail stations, as well as public transportation transfer centers that will be developed nearby, making it easy for people to come home from the airport, work, school, or from enjoying the rest of Orlando.
The model is meant to serve not only the community but individual needs as well, he said.
“This is really taking care of the whole person, and these are the types of public-private partnerships that should flourish throughout our community if we truly want to make lives better for the working class people," Demings said.
Nataly Chandia, associate vice president of UCF Global, was at the event. A daughter of immigrants, she said UCF will be focusing on English courses for anyone coming to Greater Orlando only to face language barrier struggles that could potentially hold them back from progressing.
"A lot of the immigrants in this area, they come with experience, they come with education, but they don't have the tools to be a contributing member of Central Florida. So, for me, it's really important to provide the with these tools," Chandia said.
Demings said the community efforts extend to the everyday resident, as the Housing For All trust is funded with tax dollars.
All 1,000 units are projected to be completed within the next four to five years, while the first 500 will be ready to accept new residents in the next 18 months.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.