Housing drought over for Mescalero Apache

MESCALERO, N.M. – A long housing drought has ended for the Mescalero Apache Tribe with the recent dedication of 30 single family homes, the first residential construction on the 460,000-acre Native homeland since 1996.

The I-Sah’-Din’-Dii development – touted as the first fully green American Indian housing project – was financed through a myriad of sources and took three years from start to finish.

The approximately $10 million rental project was awarded $5.8 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credits in 2007 by the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority. The tribe contributed nearly $1 million from three years worth of its annual federal housing block fund grants. The NMMFA also awarded the project $315,000 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOME program and $750,000 from its Housing Trust Fund.

In addition, $2.6 million was spent on infrastructure construction. The New Mexico Finance Authority (separate from NMMFA) made a $1 million loan, and the BIA put up $927,000 to construct roads, which have yet to be built. The tribal housing authority provided the balance of the infrastructure money.

Green housing details on the 1,325-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom homes include passive solar, energy star appliances, heat-retaining concrete slabs, water harvesting, super efficient wood stoves, radiant roof barriers (reflective coating directs heat back into the unit), xeriscape landscaping (water saving techniques) and rain barrels. The homes use low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) paints, are formaldehyde free, and feature construction waste plans, high performance doors and windows, exhaust fans, ceiling fans, clerestory windows for natural ventilation, and make use of natural watershed with construction of the roads along the ridgelines.

Rents on the very low income units will range from $281 to $391 per month. Four units will go to tribal members with incomes at or below 40 percent of area median income, 11 to those with incomes 50 percent or less of area median, and 15 to those at or below 60 percent of area median.

Tribal president Carleton Naiche-Palmer told a joyous ribbon cutting assemblage at the Mescalero, N.M. site that while “every home that is built is a blessing for our people, we still have work to do to accommodate all the people who have a need. I wish and pray we get more houses in here very soon.”

He said the 4,500-member tribe, one of two Apache groups with reservations in New Mexico (a third is located in Arizona), is plagued by homelessness and overcrowded housing.

Palmer noted the project had provided employment and training for workers in Otero and Lincoln counties. “We buy our materials from our neighboring communities, like Alamogordo and Ruidoso.” The contractor also sought to employ tribal workers, with as many as 30 percent Native workers at any one time.

Timothy Horan, Mescalero Apache Housing Authority executive director, said 400 families still remain on the tribal housing waiting list, and that some people have died before they could get units in the new development. “Our work isn’t done”

Jay Czar, NMMFA executive director, said of I-Sah’-Din’-Dii (which means “drumbeat” in the Apache language), “We want to replicate this around the state and around the country. It’s one of the most progressive projects I’ve seen anywhere.” He said the project “respects the land” through its green aspects. The contractor also did not level the development area as often happens, but left as many trees in place as possible on the site, which sits on picturesque wooded terrain in the Sacramento Mountains.

Eric Schmieder, NMMFA Indian housing specialist, said the agency has committed more than $1 million to rehabilitate substandard homes on the reservation. Its REVIVE program has granted $500,000 to do 14 home rehabs on the reservation, and $600,000 in HOME funds to rehab approximately 50 rental units.

Private mortgage finance remains largely absent on the reservation, with Schmieder saying he knew of only one mortgage ever done locally. Indian reservation land largely has “trust” status, being held for Indian tribes or individual Indians by the federal government.

Private lenders have been reluctant to lend on Indian land. The General Accountability Office, an arm of Congress, could find only 92 mortgages made on reservations between 1992 and 1996 (at two tribes, the Wisconsin Oneida and the Tulalip Tribe in Washington state, that had equity stakes in local banks). The pace has picked up a little since then, especially through the HUD 184 guaranteed Indian mortgage program, which has seen more than 8,000 mortgages close in the last 15 years.