Im­pact on vacation houses could be ‘dev­as­tat­ing’

Osce­ola County prop­erty own­ers say re­stric­tions are un­fair

Orlando Sentinel - - Front Page - By Gabrielle Rus­son

A few ex­its from Walt Dis­ney World off In­ter­state 4, a neigh­bor­hood of lux­ury vacation homes called En­core Re­sort at Re­union is mostly aban­doned, much like a ghost town.

“It’s eerie,” says concierge Craig Spahr, whose job, in hap­pier times, is to make all the guests feel wel­comed.

Some Osce­ola County prop­erty own­ers and man­agers say it’s un­fair the state is still es­sen­tially shut­ting down vacation rental homes while al­low­ing ho­tels and mo­tels to op­er­ate.

If the ban con­tin­ues long term, “It could be dev­as­tat­ing to the county in terms of eco­nom­ics,” said Ex­pe­ri­ence Kis­sim­mee CEO D.T. Minich, whose of­fice is pe­ti­tion­ing Gov. Ron DeSan­tis to make a spe­cial ex­cep­tion for Osce­ola.

The Osce­ola County board de­cided Thurs­day to send a let­ter to DeSan­tis to voice its sup­port for vacation rentals, in hopes he in­cludes them sooner in his phased-in re­open­ing plan, said Com­mis­sioner Peggy Choudry, whose Dis­trict 1 rep­re­sents many Kis­sim­mee vacation homes.

“The gov­er­nor has not given us any di­rec­tion,” Choudry said Fri­day. “Osce­ola County has de­pended a lot on the vacation rent

als, as they’ve been grow­ing in our county.”

At news con­fer­ences, DeSan­tis has de­fended his or­der, say­ing it’s meant to keep New York­ers and other out-of-town­ers from com­ing to Florida and wors­en­ing the spread of the highly con­ta­gious coro­n­avirus that has killed 1,700 peo­ple and count­ing in Florida.

His of­fice did not say when vacation rentals re­stric­tions would be lifted.

“Gov­er­nor DeSan­tis is tak­ing a cau­tious and me­thod­i­cal ap­proach to re­open­ing the state,” spokes­woman Helen Ferre said in an email. “Phase 1 has be­gun and we are mon­i­tor­ing the im­pact on pub­lic health dur­ing this pan­demic ... The goal is to get to yes, fully re­open, but with the care and cau­tion nec­es­sary to keep COVID-19 from spread­ing fur­ther.”

Minich said his un­der­stand­ing is the statewide ban is meant to keep peo­ple from renting Airbnbs lo­cated in res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods.

What makes Osce­ola stand out, he said, is most of the vacation houses are in neigh­bor­hoods ex­clu­sively made up of them.

“Vir­tu­ally no one lives there,” Minich said.

Vacation home king

If Or­lando is the theme park cap­i­tal of the world, then you could ar­gue Osce­ola County de­serves a crown as vacation home king.

More vacation rentals are un­der con­struc­tion in a county that al­ready has 40,000 of them. The homes gen­er­ate about $32 mil­lion a year in bed taxes, nearly half of Osce­ola County’s col­lec­tion, ac­cord­ing to Ex­pe­ri­ence Kis­sim­mee.

On fam­ily re­unions and trips, multi-gen­er­a­tions con­gre­gate to­gether in the of­ten large houses with eight bed­rooms or more, usu­ally a pool and other ameni­ties like movie the­aters and ar­cade rooms. On the high end, celebritie­s such as Lady Gaga rent lux­ury man­sions that cost sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars a night.

A prop­erty man­age­ment com­pany that over­sees nearly 600 pri­vately owned vacation houses in Osce­ola and Polk coun­ties has en­dured the coro­n­avirus wip­ing out most of its in­come in April and now May.

Sharon Har­ley, Jeeves Florida Rentals pres­i­dent, winces when she re­veals that some­body al­ready has can­celed in Oc­to­ber, another ca­su­alty of the un­cer­tainty.

The im­pact so far: $5 mil­lion in lost busi­ness, she said, as she is­sues re­funds and doesn’t take many new reser­va­tions.

Some peo­ple call, look­ing for a place big­ger and more en­ter­tain­ing than their homes to self-quar­an­tine since schools are closed and some work re­motely. Har­ley turns them away, al­though not by choice be­cause of the gov­er­nor’s or­der.

“We’re des­per­ately try­ing to hang on,” Har­ley said, adding un­der the state rules, she can only rent to peo­ple stay­ing at least 30 days, com­mer­cial trav­el­ers or es­sen­tial work­ers.

Pay cuts, fewer hours

Among her 75 em­ploy­ees, those who were salaried took 20% pay cuts while the hourly work­ers’ hours shrunk to 32 and then 30 hours this week. Har­ley and her hus­band gave up half their pay too. They are wait­ing for a PPP loan of slightly more than $500,000, but the money has not come yet, she said.

Har­ley says she will be forced to start lay­ing off or fur­lough­ing em­ploy­ees soon. The eco­nomic im­pact ex­tends even more to sub­con­tracted house­keep­ers and smaller busi­nesses that cater to the va­ca­tion­ers.

With the ban, all her staff could do is wait. And clean.

They scrub the houses, san­i­tiz­ing the spa­ces they might have missed be­fore, even bil­liard balls.

The vacation homes are im­mac­u­late, she said, which makes the state’s ban feel like dis­crim­i­na­tion. Why can peo­ple stay at mo­tels or ho­tels that might have lower clean­ing stan­dards, open lob­bies and scores of strangers en­ter­ing in and out? Har­ley asked.

Julie Hurst owns one of the vacation houses that matches the aes­thetic of the En­core neigh­bor­hood: Two-story build­ings in neu­tral shades with well-man­i­cured yards and pools out back.

From Liver­pool, Eng­land, Hurst bought her house in 2018 for $562,800, ac­cord­ing to prop­erty records, as a place to es­cape the win­ters and make mem­o­ries with her grand­chil­dren.

It went ac­cord­ing to plan, at first. She reg­u­larly rented it out to cover the $4,500 monthly ex­penses for the eight-bed­room house.

“Then this hap­pened,” Hurst said.

Fear­ful about fall­ing be­hind on her bills, Hurst says she has de­cided to re­mort­gage her paid-off house in Liver­pool and pay off her Florida house.

She re­minds her­self about the joy­ful mo­ments in her Kis­sim­mee house and why she bought it in the first place. It takes her mind off her re­grets, say­ing in hind­sight she shouldn’t have pur­chased the house in Osce­ola.

RI­CARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Empty neigh­bor­hoods of vacation homes are hurt­ing Osce­ola County’s econ­omy, an­gry prop­erty man­agers say, as they are upset the gov­er­nor hasn’t loos­ened re­stric­tions on vacation rentals.

RI­CARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL PHO­TOS

A quiet scene from En­core Re­sort at Re­union Wed­nes­day.

Sharon Har­ley, pres­i­dent of Jeeves Florida Rentals.

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