The national spotlight fell on the Coachella Valley in February when Disney announced its new residential-living business would debut its first master planned community here in Rancho Mirage.

Cotino is slated to be the first development of its kind from Storyliving, Disney’s new venture into the housing business. The proposal includes 1,700 homes, a 400-room hotel, and shopping and dining spots centered around a 24-acre lagoon meant to mimic a beachfront oasis in the desert. The city of Rancho Mirage—long associated with high-end resort living—called it “one of the most significant master-planned projects in Rancho Mirage history.”

But it is also the latest reminder that much of the housing development happening in our valley cities is neither affordable nor accessible for many of the people who live and work here year-round.

Nothing from master planner DMB Development or Disney’s Cotino announcements indicated how much the houses would cost. But we do know the development will include “estates, single family homes and condominiums,” a section reserved for 55+ residents, and a club membership for access to the lagoon, Disney-driven programming, entertainment and activities. The average Rancho Mirage home price as of January 2022 is more than $1.2 million, with a median price of $617,000 for a single-family home valley-wide, according to the Greater Palm Springs Real Estate Housing Report.

None of that sounds affordable for the majority of people who work in the area—or for the workforce who will be needed to staff and run this magical and visionary destination.

Data points from the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership’s 2021 annual report show that about one in four Coachella Valley residents work in leisure and hospitality. The average income per worker in that sector is less than $16,000.

Taking this into consideration, I connected with Disney Signature Experiences’ director of public affairs, Yolanda Cade, to learn more about how Storyliving can complement our community. She told me she didn’t have information on how many jobs the development could create, but she did note potential economic benefits.

“In addition to generating tax revenue through new homes, the community has Specific Plan approval for a vibrant mixed-use district featuring a range of shopping, dining and entertainment and a beachfront hotel, all of which will produce jobs and tax revenue in addition to opportunities created during the construction phase,” Cade said.

Jobs and tax revenue are certainly welcome, but they don’t necessarily translate into meeting needs for the workforce. So I asked about the ways in which Disney has previously helped communities where it has a presence. Cade’s answer hit both the qualitative and quantitative.

“In terms of our commitment to community, we bring comfort, optimism and joy to our communities and inspire hope, especially for children,” Cade said. “Through financial contributions, collaborations with nonprofit organizations, in-kind donations, and employee volunteerism, Disney brings positive, lasting change to communities around the world.”

An artist’s rendering of Disney’s Cotino development in Rancho Mirage.

As Cotino works its way toward fruition, I hope we’ll see Disney become an active supporter of our community in those ways.

But the question remains: How will the people who are expected to work at these luxury resorts support their families here? Since affordable housing is not just a valley issue, but a national one—about half of Americans say that the availability of affordable housing is a major issue where they live, according to the Pew Research Center—I took a look at how other communities are stimulating workforce housing:

• In Colorado, the Telluride Foundation is putting up affordable factory-built houses in a mountain resort community to help provide housing for the workforce. They jumpstarted this program in large part by using a mix of public and private donations, including gifted land, according to KOTO radio in October 2021.

• In Big Sky, Montana, about eight in 10 workers have to commute to the resort community, which can be a big ask in an area with snow, ice and mountain roads. A group called the Big Sky Housing Trust launched the “Rent Local” program to incentivize vacation-rental owners to instead lease their properties to essential workers, including nurses, teachers and sheriff deputies.

• In Mountain View, Calif., Google and Housing Trust Silicon Valley pooled $100 million in 2020 for the Launch Initiative to create and preserve affordable housing with loan dollars. So far, the initiative has led to several investments, including a recent $17.2 million loan in March 2022 to support a 160-unit housing development.

While it is incumbent upon public institutions to find ways to stimulate development of the much-needed affordable and attainable housing that Californians need, these examples show there’s ample room for the private sector and non-governmental organizations to step in and make a difference.

And if Disney intends on putting the Coachella Valley on its list of destinations, it will be actions, not words, that ultimately will tell us if the company is committed to putting people ahead of profits.

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Melissa Daniels

Melissa Daniels is a writer and digital media consultant who has called the Coachella Valley home since 2019. She's originally from Rochester, N.Y., and spent several years covering state government and...

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