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Boosting Market Economies on Homelands

The Center for Indian Country Development is kicking off a four-pronged strategy to help tribes develop market economies with a focus on homeownership.

The Center for Indian Country Development is kicking off a four-pronged strategy to help tribes develop market economies with a conference focusing on homeownership.

Co-director Patrice H. Kunesh said the group, created by the Minneapolis branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, will focus on the issues of Indian land, business alliances, education and homeownership.

The group is co-hosting a conference on mortgage lending in Indian country with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, NeighborWorks, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Development September 13-15 in Scottsdale, Arizona. A conference on education will follow October 5 at the Minneapolis Fed.

Kunesh said homeownership is “an incredible economic driver. We definitely see homeownership as a paradigm in Indian country.”

She said of homeownership “there is much more need than we can ever serve in the public arena,” creating “tremendous opportunities in terms of a market.”

Tribal income gains in recent years mean “a significant percentage of American Indians can afford to own a home,” she said.

She realizes that the market model she envisions needs to be understood through comprehensive research, as it is constantly changing. The mortgage market in general has undergone big changes since the collapse of 2008, with a tightening of underwriting and a thinning out of investors for mortgages. “This affects Indian country and the rural market as well,” she said.

Kunesh pointed to Native CDFIs (community development financial institutions) and tribal banks like Bay Bank (Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin) and Woodlands National Bank (Mille Lacs) as institutions that will have a big role in mortgage lending on tribal homelands.

She also suggested streamlining regs at the myriad federal agencies that have a hand in Indian finance such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Housing and Urban Development and USDA. “Could we possibly have a common application?” she wondered. Title search reports (TSRs) are another roadblock in need of streamlining, she said.

The Center has the backing of the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, who personally approved it, Kunesh said. She said the center got its start from Sue Woodrow of the Montana office of the Minneapolis Fed.

Woodrow realized that the federal and tribal governments were the major sources of funds on reservations and “took it to heart. She has tried to facilitate a flow of commercial transactions and developed a Model Commercial Transaction Code” tribes can adapt.

The research function is being handled by Dick Todd, an economist at the Minneapolis Fed. Kunesh, who formerly worked for the USDA’s Rural Development, was brought in last year as co-director.

The mortgage conference will feature Jackie Pata, Tlingit, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, tribal representatives sharing successful homeownership opportunities, and federal officials such as Tom Wright, who runs the HUD 184 American Indian mortgage program.

The three main themes of the conference will be improving access to capital, mitigating risk, and building community assets.

“We also will celebrate 20 years of homeownership accomplishments in Indian country and highlight research and data on Indian country homeownership demographics and other mortgage issues,” the group said.