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Leech Lake opens doors to alcohol- and drug-free housing development

By Molly Miron -- Editor, Bemidji (Minn.) Pioneer

CASS LAKE, Minn. - In a rural setting south of the city of Cass Lake, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe has built a new neighborhood.

This community is unique because a special agreement in the leases requires the families moving into the homes and neighborhood to remain alcohol- and drug-free. Violation of the agreement would mean termination of the lease, said Marlene Mitchell, executive director of Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Housing Authority.

''We're the first ones to do this,'' said Eugene Whitebird, a member of the Leech Lake Housing Authority Board.

''This will be a model nationwide in Indian country,'' said Donald Goggleye, tax credit coordinator and construction manager for the project. ''We hope to lead by example with this initiative and also bring back a more traditionally bonded community. Being alcohol- and drug-free is the first step, in my opinion, to creating a stronger family unit, and in turn, a strong, close-knit community.''

The 25 three- and four-bedroom homes in phase one of the development on Wakonabo Drive are funded about 20 percent by the Leech Lake Band, with the rest coming from tax credit financing managed by Raymond James Inc.

Mitchell said the Leech Lake Tribal Council bought the 120 acres of land, which is on the Cass County property tax rolls, and leased it to the Housing Authority to develop. The total cost of the project is $5.3 million, she said.

Thirteen families moved into the homes in August with six more homes ready now for occupancy and six additional homes scheduled to open for families by the end of the year. Mark Bieberbach and Christina Magero, asset managers from Raymond James Inc., toured one of the homes and brought along enough energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs to furnish 12 new houses. The light bulbs were donated by Wattsaver, a New York-based nonprofit organization. The energy consumption of the homes with the compact fluorescents will be tracked and compared to electricity used in the 13 homes currently occupied by families and lighted by traditional incandescent bulbs.

''We've been involved in housing since '69,'' said Bieberbach, noting that the current project is the fourth in which his company has partnered with the Leech Lake Band since the tax credit program began in 1986. He said the Leech Lake Band applied for the tax credit financing and the state of Minnesota approved the project.

Housing needs

Mitchell said the new community is designed to meet the needs of low-income families. The lease for a three-bedroom home costs $0 to $185 per month; the lease for a four-bedroom unit is $0 to $215 per month, depending on a family's ability to pay. She said the Housing Authority consulted the Leech Lake Tribal Council with the alcohol/drug-free concept and received full support. She said low-income American Indian families have preference in leasing the homes.

The Housing Authority is also building a community center for the neighborhood. The grand opening of the center is scheduled for April - National Drug and Alcohol Awareness month.

''We're going to have a full-size gymnasium for the kids here,'' Goggleye said. ''Our new community center is made so we can expand, maybe with a clinic, maybe a day care.''

Tom Chase, field foreman for the project, said the houses contain about 2,000 square feet of living space plus attached garages. Two of the homes are adapted for people in wheelchairs. The homes are situated on two-acre lots landscaped by Dave and Bob Wittner of Cass Lake. Buses pick up children for school and Head Start in Cass Lake.

Home care

Tim Lindgren, housing inspector for the Leech Lake Band, said he checks on the homes every three months to ensure the residents are maintaining them properly and are fulfilling other aspects of their lease agreements. He added that when some people become aware of the alcohol- and drug-free stipulation, they decide not to sign on for a home.

''Once they see the lease, they kind of screen themselves,'' Mitchell said.

Lindgren added that it would be pointless to have a family move in and have the lease terminated the next day because they had beer at the housewarming party.

''I really love the idea; we're building nice homes for the people,'' Chase said. ''We walked through the first 13, and we were so proud and happy. They kept them so beautiful.''

''Very good people, very grateful people living here,'' Goggleye added.

Name search

Mitchell said the new community doesn't have a name yet. She said she expects the residents to come up with a name that has special meaning for them. When the community develops a name, Goggleye said he plans to erect welcome signs at the entrances of the neighborhood. The signs will emphasize the alcohol- and drug-free resolution of the residents.

Most of the houses are situated on Wakonabo Drive, which is named after Mark Wakonaba, a Leech Lake tribal elder and a longtime member of the Housing Authority Board. Mitchell said Wakonabo died recently, but the board honored him with the road name before his death.

Copyright (c) 2007, Bemidji (Minn.) Pioneer. Reprinted with permission.