''I'm even excited for my first payment'Homeownership on the rise on Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska
By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk WINNEBAGO, Nebraska – Dulcie Greene points to the drab, red brick one-story with boarded-up windows – one in a long line of government homes on a steep hill in one of poorest neighborhoods of this reservation community. She describes the fate of many of the homes in this neighborhood – abandoned for lack of maintenance or severe damage caused by renters. She raised her three daughters in a home here for nine years before finding better housing just down the road last year. “They call this the ghetto,” she says. “I don’t know why. There are a lot worse places I’ve seen.” In November, the 30-year-old Winnebago woman moved her family into a new walkout home on the southern edge of this town, a home she designed and bought along with her husband, Amos Two Bulls. And unlike her old home – with its worn linoleum floors and deteriorating exterior – her new home has five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a family room, laundry room, two-car garage, fence and patio. All on a quiet cul-de-sac with a pretty view.
She’s one of many new homeowners in a place where home ownership was a foreign concept just a few years ago. With $32,500 in down payment assistance from a tribal housing program, Greene and Two Bulls were able to afford the $172,000 home. They received another $16,000 in support from two other grants. Without that help, she said, the couple could not have afforded to buy their first home. “I’m even excited for my first payment,” she said. “Is that weird?” Since 2002, 52 Winnebago families have received more than $2.3 million in down payment assistance to purchase homes through a tribal housing program known as the Winnebago Down Payment Assistance Program. The average amount received by program recipients was $45,000. The Winnebago Tribe estimates each dollar of down payment assistance provided to its citizens leads to $3.72 in home investments, and the program has helped generate $5.97 million in home investment. The initiative has reshaped this tiny reservation in northeast Nebraska. Visitors to the town – especially those visiting from other reservations – are often surprised to see how much new development has taken place in Winnebago in recent years.
A new hospital, new football field and new businesses such as a Dollar General, Mexican restaurant and coffee shop all have been constructed in recent years. The renaissance taking place here began in 2002 with the purchase of 40 acres on the north end of town by the tribe’s economic development corporation, Ho-Chunk Inc. (HCI). And much of the new development has occurred within that 40-acre plot, known as Ho-Chunk Village. Lance Morgan, president and CEO of HCI, said much of his company’s work has been focused on creating revenue for the community and creating jobs. However, he said, the company realized that the lack of quality, affordable housing on the reservation was dampening the company’s economic development efforts. “You can’t have a solid community, you can’t have good workers, you can’t have a good education system if you don’t have a good home,” he said. “It’s one of life’s basic necessities, and it’s a necessity that we’ve struggled with for a very long time.” The company began working with the Ho-Chunk Community Development Corporation (HCCDC) – a nonprofit affiliated with the Winnebago Tribe – to begin seeking grant funds to help contribute to a down payment assistance fund for tribal members. Tribal leaders also decided to earmark some of the revenue that HCI provides to the tribe from the corporation’s profits to fund the Down Payment Assistance Program. Those dividends have provided 64 percent of the program’s funds, with another 15 percent coming from grants and 21 percent from tribal gas tax revenue.
Sources of grant funding have included the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, federal HOME funds and support from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. In 2015, the Winnebago Tribal Council set a goal of adding 200 new homes or apartments to the reservation’s housing stock over the next five years. “There’s such a shortage of decent, affordable housing for folks,” said Brian Mathers, executive director of HCCDC. “It’s really been a priority of the council for a long time.” The tribe matched a recent $250,000 grant from the Nebraska Affordable Housing Program with funds already in the Down Payment Assistance Program’s fund. The fund currently has about $170,000. A certified community development financial institution under HCCDC known as Ho-Chunk Community Capital also recently received a $150,000 boost from the U.S. Department of Treasury to help tribal homebuyers establish and protect their credit so they can qualify for mortgages and the Down Payment Assistance Program. Qui Qui St. Cyr, residential manager for Ho-Chunk Community Capital, said her organization works with potential homebuyers to ensure their credit will qualify them for a mortgage and participation in the tribe’s Down Payment Assistance Program. She hosts homebuyer seminars that educate them about what it takes to qualify for a mortgage and construct a home, if that’s what they decide to do. For those unsure about designing their own home, HCI subsidiary BluStone Homes offers a host of different floor plans for homebuyers. “It’s up to them what they want to do,” St. Cyr said. Ho-Chunk Community Capital also connects potential homebuyers to lenders. In order to take part in the Down Payment Assistance Program, homebuyers must be Winnebago tribal members, able to qualify for a home mortgage and abide by applicable housing covenants, which often stipulate that homebuyers keep junk cars off their property and build homes with garages. Program participants must remain in their homes for at least 5 years. The program provides up to $65,000 in assistance for new home construction and as little as $5,000 for purchase of an existing home. A new initiative provides $35,000 in assistance to buyers of lower cost homes.
Mathers said many challenges face potential homebuyers at Winnebago, much like on other reservations. For example, many homeowners won’t actually own the land upon which their home is located. That’s not always true, as buyers of homes within Ho-Chunk Village actually own the land upon which their home is built and have to pay property taxes like homeowners who don’t live on federal trust land. Another challenge is finding banks that are willing to approve mortgages for homes built on federal trust land or within a reservation. Many banks also don’t know how to manage loans provided through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 184 Indian Home Loan Guarantee Program, a home financing program designed to help tribes and tribal citizens. HCCDC uses the Section 184 program to secure financing for many of the homebuyers taking part in the tribe’s Down Payment Assistance Program as the program offers a relatively low interest rate and less stringent credit requirements. Between 2000 and 2013, the Down Payment Assistance Program helped increase home ownership rates by 4.6 percent compared to a 1.2 percent increase in home ownership for Nebraska. Median home values on the reservation have increased by 29 percent. St. Cyr said home ownership is a common fact of life for non-Natives living outside of reservations. “Now It’s possible for them, young people, and us Natives to buy our own home, make our own home, plan it out, however we want it,” she said. She said she’s even begun receiving inquiries from tribal members who live off the reservation who have wanted to move back but didn’t have many housing options, until now. “I have more older adults wanting to move back to Winnebago because of the growth of the community and because it doesn’t look like a typical rez,” she said.
Michelle Parker, community projects coordinator for HCCDC, said the wealth of new housing options in Winnebago has created demand not only among tribal members but others as well. “It drives more people to want to come live here, not necessarily people from Winnebago,” she said. The Winnebago Tribe has faced many obstacles in its efforts to increase home ownership, Morgan said. Many tribal members struggled to find employment on the reservation, while others lacked the positive credit history or financial education necessary to apply and qualify for a mortgage. So HCI and other tribal programs had to invest in a variety of basic services and functions necessary to facilitate increased home ownership. “When it comes to housing, we own the land. We built the lots,” Morgan said. “We bought the housing company. We construct the houses. We sell used cars to fix credit. We bought the bank. We provide the jobs for the people to get to that stage. We’ve done everything we can to make it possible.” “As a people, we’ve been handed a tough hand, and I think that the only way we’re going to do better is if we as a people starting taking control of every element of our problems,” he said. In June, Andy Snowball, 33, and her family moved into a newly constructed home in Ho-Chunk Village with support from the Down Payment Assistance Program. She and her husband, John Snowball, received $65,000 in assistance and now live in a home valued at $270,000. That’s a major upgrade for the couple, who most recently lived in a duplex in Sioux City, Iowa, some 20 miles to the north of Winnebago. Living in Winnebago has helped simplify her family’s routine, which once involved her husband and son commuting to Winnebago each day and her other children attending school in Sioux City. Now the entire family either works or attends school in Winnebago. In addition, the couple is now building equity rather than paying rent while getting to live in a four-bedroom home with a three-car garage, back deck and big yard. “My husband and I, we have been a team working our way up to a better position for a while now,” she said. “We wouldn’t have really been able to build a house in Winnebago that’s as nice as the one that we have for a while.” Morgan said getting to see a family move into their first home is the most rewarding aspect of the Down Payment Assistance Program. “We’ve done all these things to make housing possible, but what actually excites me is seeing one family move into their home, signing the paperwork, getting their key and starting a whole new phase of their life,” he said. The Winnebago Tribe’s efforts to foster home ownership is just one facet of a decades-long effort to rebuild its poverty-stricken reservation and invest in tribal members who are, in turn, invested in their community, he said. “A homeowner is a totally different person than someone living in low-income housing,” he said. “They’re going to have different expectations for their community, their leadership. They’re going to expect more out of their schools.” “These homeowners aren’t just homeowners. They’re the bedrock for our community for the next 50 years.”
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