Building Trust Through Community Engagement in Orlando

The city of Orlando, which is hosting the 9th Annual Purpose Built Communities conference this fall, is home to one of the most dynamic Purpose Built efforts in the country. In some six short years, a broad range of cross-sectoral partners have come together to create measurable results as they work with residents and each other to eradicate intergenerational poverty and revitalize the Communities of West Lakes. LIFT Orlando, which serves as the community quarterback for the effort, guides the efforts of partners from the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

LIFT Orlando hosts a conversation about accelerating small business development with Accion and JP Morgan Chase. Eddy Moratin (standing) is LIFT Orlando’s executive director.

The redevelopment of Camping World Stadium, under the auspices of Florida Citrus Sports, spurred Steve Hogan, the organization’s president, to think differently about how to target the organization’s philanthropy. At the same time, Tom Sittema, then-CEO of CNL, a real estate investment company, was thinking about how to address complex social issues in the company’s back yard. The two, along with other Orlando leaders, began to explore how to increase their philanthropic impact by creating a comprehensive and holistic approach to poverty in the neighborhood surrounding the stadium. The result was the creation of LIFT Orlando with Eddy Moratin, a long-time Orlando resident and nonprofit leader as executive director.

Purpose Built Communities provides the framework for LIFT Orlando. LIFT came to know Purpose Built Communities through Bob Lupton, an Atlantan who has worked to understand and end poverty in Atlanta and elsewhere for more than 40 years. Lupton suggested that representatives of LIFT visit East Lake in Atlanta. The author of Toxic Charity, he believes one cannot “serve the poor out of poverty.” Rather, economically disadvantaged individuals need “caring and connected neighbors.” As Lupton has said of developments he’s spearheaded in Atlanta, he works to “re-neighbor” communities and create places where neighbor helps neighbor. That is the goal that LIFT hopes to achieve in the Communities of West Lakes.

As Moratin says, “You can’t simply address one problem such as housing or education. You have to do it all, and Purpose Built has accelerated our efforts. Their staff held our hand as we began to work to overcome economic disadvantage in the west side of Orlando and equipped residents to work together and help their neighbors find a pathway out of poverty.”

Right from the start, Moratin and the LIFT staff knew that before they could engage the residents, they had to secure their buy-in, building trust in the process. They hired the Polis Institute of Orlando to direct the community engagement process. Polis decided to throw out its customary playbook and hire people from the neighborhood to do all the groundwork. Rather than strangers with clipboards going door to door, friends and neighbors conducted the survey. This important effort took a year and more than 30,000 hours, all before the first official community meetings were held.

The survey sought answers to three simple questions:

  • What do you love about this community?
  • What would you change if you had the chance?
  • How do you want to be involved?

LIFT Orlando followed the survey with community meetings that led to the identification of four broad goals – the development of a mixed income neighborhood, cradle to career education, improved wellness and health care access, and long-term economic viability. While residents understand that change is inevitable, they want the revitalization to acknowledge them and honor their contributions over the years. As one of them said, “We don’t want it to be like we were never here.”

Site plan for the new Pendana mixed-income housing development in the Communities of West Lakes.

Building on this extensive community engagement, Pendana is the first brick and mortar project to come out of the ground. LIFT Orlando was able to leverage a philanthropic investment to buy the land from the City of Orlando, tax credits and other tools to develop a new mixed-income community. Some units rent for as little as 30 percent of residents’ income. The rent for other subsidized units starts at just under $600 a month. The market-rate units start at $850. The apartments have many upscale features like balconies and patios, crown moldings, a fitness center and swimming pool.

Mrs. Shirley Bradley, who has lived in the Bunche Manor/Hollando neighborhood for more than 50 years, became an advocate for change long before LIFT. As president of the homeowner’s association, she mobilized her neighbors to push the city to demolish a dilapidated apartment complex in the neighborhood that eventually became Pendana. Things began to happen following the reopening of Camping World Stadium and the involvement of Steve Hogan, Tom Sittema and other business leaders. “LIFT and all the partners have put a lot of time and effort into putting West Lakes on the map and involving the people who live here,” Bradley said.

She continued, “Through charrettes and other meetings, we branded the new apartments and chose the name. Pendana means ‘love one another’ in Swahili, and we believe love is the key to keeping the neighborhood alive and encouraging young people to move back to the neighborhood.”

So, what’s next for the Communities of West Lakes? LIFT Orlando has obtained approval for the second phase of Pendana consisting 120 units of senior housing, all affordable, and is hoping to secure funding soon. In addition, through LIFT Orlando’s partnership with Florida Hospital Foundation, the Maryland based Bainum Family Foundation invested $12.75 million towards the construction and operation of a state-of-the-art early learning center. The facility will be built on a 1.3-acre, vacant land parcel adjacent to Orange Center Elementary School and will accommodate 150 children ages six-months through three years old.

Look for more information about LIFT’s work in upcoming issues of the Purpose Built Communities’ e-newsletter and on the Purpose Built Communities website.