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By working federal programs specialist finds housing dollars for tribes

SANTEE, Neb.- Knowing how to work the alphabet soup of federal agency assistance can really pay off. For example, two Nebraska tribes are $1.225 million to the good because a technical-assistance specialist has been able to tap three separate programs to get them housing grants.

As a result, 28 families from the Santee Sioux and Omaha tribes will be moving into new homes.

Melissa Robinson-Henschild, a project developer at Mercy Housing Midwest, got started in these projects last year, when the Nebraska Partnership Office of Fannie Mae, the big Washington, DC mortgage agency, gave her group a grant to provide technical assistance to Nebraska tribes.

"I really had a passion to work with the tribes," she said, and the proof is in the results.

Robinson-Henschild helped the Santee tribe obtain $825,000 in grants to build ten lease-purchase single-family homes here. The Santee Sioux Tribal Housing Authority has been awarded $400,000 from the federal HOME program, $25,000 from the Federal Home Loan Banks' Affordable Housing Program (AHP), and $400,000 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Rural Housing and Economic Development program (RHED).

In addition, the Omaha Tribe was able to tap RHED for $400,000, which will go towards construction of the 18 units of housing. The six two-bedroom triplexes will be built in Macy, Neb.

Navigating these various programs can be a challenge. The HOME program, while federal, is administered by state agencies, in this case the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. The AHP program comes from a legal obligation of the Federal Home Loan Banks to grant 10 percent of their yearly profits to affordable housing. RHED is the rural effort of a federal department more associated with urban development.

Robinson-Henschild, who is a member of the Omaha tribe, got her start in Indian housing about ten years ago with a Nebraska non-profit, the Native Council on Economic and Community Development, of which she eventually became executive director.

There she cut her teeth on a Low Income Housing Tax Credit project for the Omaha in Macy, in what she called "an on-the- ground, hands-on experience."

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She next became a Community Builder for HUD's Office of Native American Programs, before moving to Mercy Homes Midwest.

Robinson-Henschild has since left Mercy Homes to become a consultant for the Santee Sioux Tribal Housing Authority. Her firm, White Buffalo Developers, is now attempting to tap yet another program, HUD's Title VI, for more money to build the ten homes here.

Title VI, named after a section of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act, guarantees 95 percent of lender outlays for Indian housing or infrastructure.

Robinson-Henschild said the Santee authority has gotten a preliminary approval from HUD on a $270,000 Title VI loan, which would complete the financing for the ten units.

The Santee homes will be lease-purchase units, meaning the residents can rent them while they put aside enough to be able to buy them, anywhere from three to 15 years after they move in.

Construction of the units, to be located within walking distance of the new public school addition, will create at least 15 construction jobs of at least a year's duration.

Keeping construction jobs on the reservation is important to the consultant/developer. "I'm very optimistic about housing development and economic development going hand in hand," she said. "We'd like to build houses every year - nice houses."

Rents on the ten units will be a very affordable $218 per month on a four bedroom unit.

Robinson-Henschild estimated the current housing need on the Santee reservation to be about 100 units. Next, she'd like to develop a tax credit project, to put another 10- to 15-unit dent in the problem.

She thinks of herself as more of a developer than a consultant, but she also thinks many tribes could use housing consultants, because with the turnover in employees, each time a new housing authority executive director begins, the learning curve starts all over again.