December 10, 2022

Floridian of the Year: Lift Orlando

Non-profit Lift Orlando is revitalizing a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood around Camping World Stadium

Amy Keller | 11/30/2021

Harris Rosen, Orlando’s iconic hotelier, had demonstrated how a focused effort could work when he adopted Orlando’s Tangelo Park neighborhood in the early 1990s. His Tangelo Park Program gave every neighborhood child between ages 2 and 4 access to free preschool and provided parents with parenting classes and vocational training. Every child who graduated from high school and was accepted by a Florida college, university or vocational school would receive a full scholarship covering tuition, books, room and board. Twenty-six years later, high school graduation rates in Tangelo Park are 100%, and 176 kids have completed college or trade school. Crime in the neighborhood is virtually non-existent.

Other state business leaders have hopped aboard the Chamber of Commerce’s Florida Prosperity Initiative, which encourages them to adopt impoverished ZIP codes, identify their needs and find ways to help turn things around. Earlier this year, Forough Hosseini, senior vice president of ICI Homes, launched a Homes Bring Hope Initiative to help low-income renters in Daytona Beach’s 32114 ZIP code buy homes.

Florida Blue’s Jenkins says the health insurance giant is replicating the work it’s been doing with Lift in targeted sections of Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville, where a newly formed group called Lift Jax is spearheading an effort to transform the city’s Eastside neighborhood. “Listen, you can spread this work out so wide that it’s going to take a longer time to scale and get impact. We want to have an immediate impact, focusing on specific ZIP codes,” Jenkins says.

For all the progress in West Lakes, there’s still considerable work to do. The community lacks a grocery store, and business recruitment has been a challenge. Getting a high-end call center or something similar to set up shop in the neighborhood would be the “big, ultimate win,” says Hogan. “We wanted some of that to happen in year one, and it didn’t.”

Lift’s leaders are realistic about the time it will take to move the needle on other fronts. Crime rates, for instance, have risen and fallen, but as of 2019 were still twice as high as the rest of the city. The community continues to lag Orange County on employment.

Education is another tough nut to crack. While kindergarten readiness has improved 12% since 2015, and high school graduation rates are up 17%, fewer than 50% of children in West Lakes public schools are performing at grade level. “We want to always acknowledge that there’s great movement going on, but there’s enormous complexity to the work,” says Moratin, Lift’s president.

Polis’ Maroon cautions against getting hung up on the numbers. “You can get great numbers when you gentrify a neighborhood. I can assure you, you’ll see remarkable numbers — low unemployment rates, a white-collar workforce — but when you look at who’s at the table, it’s not going to be Hispanic people at the table or African-Americans,” Maroon says. Unlike what’s going on in West Lakes, “those are stories of investments without a community voice.”

KEY PROJECTS

HOUSING

  • Pendana at West Lakes ($40 million)

The mixed-income complex includes 140 units for tenants earning 60% of the area median income or less, 40 market-rate apartments and 20 designated for extremely low-income tenants. When Lift Orlando began accepting applications for Pendana’s 200 units in 2018, nearly 15,000 people got in line. “It was like the lines at Disney. People would bring lawn chairs and literally wait in lines wrapped around the leasing office to order to make out applications to live there,” recalls Tom Sittema, one of Lift Orlando’s founders.

  • Pendana at West Lakes Senior Residences ($25 million)

Designed for residents 62 years and older, the three-story building (which opened in 2020) has its own movie theater, computer center and fitness center. Ninety percent of residents are low-income tenants, and 10% of the units are reserved for very low-income individuals and set aside for use in partnership with the city of Orlando for the chronically homeless.

Tags: Floridian of the Year, Feature

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