Sunbelt Blues: The Failure of American Housing
Macmillan Books, 2021
Reviewed by Amber Taylor
Andrew Ross invites us to read his 2021 publication Sunbelt Blues as a follow-up to The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Values in Disney’s New Town. While Sunbelt Blues comes two decades after the latter, both projects are anchored in Osceola County, where Disney’s master-planned town, Celebration, represents the false veneer and exploitative reality of Disney’s monopoly over central Florida. Founded in 1996 and only a ten-minute drive from Disney World, the town was meant to embody Disney’s utopic, wonderland aesthetic, with architecture that evokes a timeless, colonial past using inexpensive, modern building materials. In contrast to the sprawling suburbia emerging around Disney in the ‘90s, Celebration appealed to those craving a unique, tight-knit community. Both The Celebration Chronicles and Sunbelt Blues are attentive to this desire. As professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU’s American Studies department, Ross uses ethnographic methods, drawing from interviews conducted while living in Celebration. Sunbelt Blues is Ross’s promise to those residents that he would “return to Celebration, but only when it had grown up. Like children, new towns surely have the right to mature before their character is judged.” What we see over two decades later is a savvy community combating a corporate monolith that reaps great profits from its tourism industry while severely underpaying the local workers who maintain it.
To tell this story, Ross looks beyond Celebration, introducing the sprawling motel and tent communities of unhoused Floridians, many of whom are employed by Disney or other tourism-related industries. Though Sunbelt Blues’s landscape is uniquely Floridian, marked by interstate stucco motels that cusp alligator swampland, the struggle to find housing in a pandemic economy that saw the richest corporations accumulate more wealth as the rate of unhoused people increased is familiar across the country. Ross reminds us that cities like San Francisco and Seattle have had their housing infrastructure shaped by megacorporations (Apple, Amazon) that hold great economic and political power, but are met with little accountability when their growth creates cost-of-living rates that are unattainable for the average American. Correspondingly, Sunbelt Blues confronts the myth that corporation-driven economic growth will necessarily translate to sustainable community development. Instead, he argues, the national crisis of unhoused people is linked to a concentration of profits in the hands of corporations, whose economic growth exists, not in spite of the poverty that surrounds their headquarters, factories, and fantasy wonderlands, but because they are able to exact cheap labor from a pool of impoverished, politically disenfranchised, and often unhoused, workers.
Chapters One through Three focus on those who may not be listed as chronically homeless in census data, but nonetheless are what the UN calls “inadequately housed.” Ross shows how these terms – which separate those who may have access to sporadic shelter, either with friends, family, or in motels, from those who live in tents long-term – obscure the severity of the housing crisis in the United States. He emphasizes that unsheltered communities are more visible in concentrated urban centers, where people seek shelter in highly exposed spaces, such as sidewalks and under bridges. Ross also asserts that in order to understand this crisis, one must look to the suburbs, where many one-time homeowners resort to short-term shelter in motels. He explains how the housing market has led to an influx of such people: “Between 2010 and 2019, the number of renters in the country grew twice as fast as the homeowner population […] Meanwhile, the overall cost of housing, but especially rents, is eating up an ever-larger share of most household budgets, rising much faster than incomes.” The result is that even those who are employed can’t afford rent and must resort to short-term living arrangements. Many of the motel residents Ross interviews do not consider themselves homeless but rather middle class, and hope to leave their motel rooms soon. However, Sunbelt Blues tells few stories of those who can find stable housing. Thus, we see how the economic system that allowed for a semblance of middle class life in the early 2000s has disappeared. In the process, many are pushed below the poverty line, which, once reached, is very difficult to emerge from. In this context, moteliers who opened for the tourism industry in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s, now find themselves managing properties for families and individuals in precarious circumstances. Ross is sympathetic to the small moteliers’ position, as they struggle to pay bills when their residents cannot afford rent. However, he also highlights the injustice of small business owners profiting off of and making decisions about those who, with no other options for affordable housing, are at the whim of moteliers. What is most heartbreaking, though, is the prevalence of land buyouts by international corporations and LLCs, where the decision to raise rent or motel prices is not made by managers working directly with this emerging class of unsheltered people, but by wealthy, faceless corporations who may never visit places like Osceola but reap great profits from its rents.
Next, Ross takes us beyond the motel corridors to see where communities go when even motels become too expensive. These communities are what the “HUD labels as ‘literally homeless.’” Ross explains that the majority of “Osceola’s unsheltered lie well out of public sight, under blue tents and tarps in thickets of scrub woodland just off the 192 corridor.” In the forested swamplands, unhoused communities are free from the scrutiny of local police, Disney, tourists, etc., but are exposed to the central Floridian climate, which poses its own dangers. Again, many of the people Ross interviews in the forested areas, referred to as the “Forty-Acre Wood,” are employed but the minimum wage they receive is not enough to make rent.
Sunbelt Blues’ final chapters outline how Disney developed central Florida as a politically and economically friendly location for the corporation. In “The Disney Price,” we see how Disney World’s early founding established it as a land development company reaping great profits through tourism. Ross writes that, “The Disney World enterprise…has been the most successful capitalist land development in modern history. In 2019, Disney’s theme parks and resorts generated more revenue ($26.23 billion) than its media networks ($24.83 billion).” Disney uses this wealth to invest in politicians who support its political and economic goals, spending a “whopping $28.3 million on Florida elections, including a substantial amount targeted at tax avoidance measures.” And yet, “most of the 78,000 workers in the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’ are paid a poverty wage.” Thus, Sunbelt Blues, like many texts that look at the desperate living conditions of the economically exploited classes in the United States, ends by highlighting the profoundly undemocratic processes of wealth accumulation that have allowed for corporations to profit while average people suffer. This is further highlighted by Disney’s continuing land development, which poses ecological risks for all of central Florida, as it pushes into undeveloped swampland in spite of rising sea levels and environmental catastrophe.
Because Ross explores questions of housing, corporate wealth accumulation, democracy, and ecological collapse, Sunbelt Blues would be useful for any academic researching economic inequality in the United States. Its journalistic style and focus on individual stories in order to make sense of the housing crisis also makes it suitable for those outside of academia who are interested in Ross’ sequel to The Celebration Chronicles. These interviews are what make the text particularly compelling, as well as allow us to understand the broader national housing crisis in the particular context of Central Florida.