Breaking ground for affordable housing was the goal on June 5 when members of the Mashantucket Pequot tribal council, Department of Housing, and Housing Committee members gathered at the site of the first homes to be built for lower income tribal members on the reservation.
During the 1990s, the Mashantucket’s Foxwoods Casinos, the third largest in the world, was the tribe’s cash cow. But as Marjorie Colebut-Jackson, tribal councilor, said, the time for grandiose housing is past. “We are coming back to our reality and looking at affordability. Families are struggling because of the economy and we now have families moving in with other families,” she said.
Colebut-Jackson said that besides providing housing, the project will bring a closeness to the community. “We want our people to be able to live on our reservation land, get loans that are affordable, and be able to have their families back together in a nice home,” she said.
It has only been a year since the idea for affordable housing was conceived. Jean Swift, chair of the Housing Committee and tribal council treasurer, said, “We just knew we needed housing. We were being criticized because we were divesting older properties, but they cost so much to maintain.” The older properties were located off the reservation, and as they have been sold off, the money was set aside for new, smaller, affordable housing.
According to James Jackson, Swift's executive assistant, there were no federal grant funds used in the building of the homes.
Of the 1,000 tribal members, 400 – 450 are living in 125 properties on the Mashantucket Reservation, with all but about 15 percent living nearby. Bill Satti, Mashantucket’s director of public affairs, said the population on the reservation is growing, especially as tribal members are growing up and starting families of their own. “About 10 years ago, they put the infrastructure for housing in place with the expectations that tribal members” would come back to live on the reservation, Satti said.
“We are hoping this is just the start,” Swift said. “The plan is to continue to sell properties off the reservation. We don't need to continue to pay property taxes to the town.”
Nestled deep into the wooded Connecticut countryside, the first houses will be located on Joseph Williams Street in Mashantucket. The two colonial style, two-family prefabricated duplexes will be approximately 1,800 square feet each, and will face each other from across the street. At present there is only one other home on the street.
During the ground-breaking ceremony, Swift thanked all of the people who made the project happen so quickly. She said inspiration was derived from the slogan “Making Mashantucket the community of choice,” coined by Jackson. “Let's start making this a place that people want to be, not a last resort. It’s a first choice. The committee caught the vision and the Department of Housing caught the vision and we are raising the bar. We want to make our properties as beautiful as our reservation is already. We want to make it more accessible and affordable to our families,” Swift said.
Bringing tribal members to live on the reservation is a big part of the dream. Secretary and Treasurer for the Elders Council, Anthony Sebastian said, “When your family, relatives and extended relatives are all over the place, you only see them at special events or holidays. Living on the reservation will give families an opportunity to see each other on a daily basis. If you have everyone living in close proximity you can stop over and talk, and build a stronger community relationship.”
Swift said that she has a sign hanging in her kitchen that says, “Home is where your story begins.” “I often think about that because as we raise our children and families, we go back and think about home and those memories. We believe by reinvesting in our community and our reservation, by making affordable housing a possibility, people can have better possibilities to create those memories; a place where they can belong.”
Fatima Dames, tribal councilor, thanked the Housing Committee and Department of Housing for their hard work in making Mashantucket a better place. She said, “This is what Mashantucket is about. It’s about the revenues going back into the communities for the people.”