Impact on vacation houses could be ‘devastating’
Osceola County property owners say restrictions are unfair
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.
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.
A quiet scene from Encore Resort at Reunion Wednesday.
Sharon Harley, president of Jeeves Florida Rentals.