Putting the Housing Pieces Together: Ho-Chunk Village

Through the creation of new job opportunities at Ho-Chunk, Inc., there came the need for additional housing on the Winnebago Reservation. (Ho-Chunk, Inc.)

The concept of “one stop shopping” for mortgage finance in Indian Country is being realized on the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska, as the tribe’s economic development arm continues to assemble pieces of an end-to-end operation to increase new home construction and home loan volumes there.

Elements of Ho-Chunk Inc.’s ambitious program to bring construction and mortgages in-house include a modular home builder, a stick built home builder, investments in banks, a down payment assistance program and an auto dealership to help tribal members build credit histories. The tribe also employs a housing advocate to take tribal members through the complicated procedures of getting a home.

The nexus of the program is Ho-Chunk Village, a 40-acre development on the reservation where new homes are being built and financed. The program has been successful enough that another 40 acres adjacent to it is in the process of being purchased.

The land status of Ho-Chunk Village (the land was purchased from non-Native farmers and so does not have the tribal trust land status that makes mortgage lending difficult) has given the tribe the opportunity to see single-family homes, apartments, fourplexes and townhomes for elders spring up where housing development had been rare.

Bank mortgage lending on the reservation formerly was almost impossible to get, because of the trust land status and the low valuations of real estate on the res.

Now, about 60 tribal members have financed and built new homes in the Village, with a tribal goal to hit 200 within five years.

The program began fifteen years ago with the purchase of the village land in 2003. While the various units that have been accreted belong to several of Ho-Chunk Inc.’s many subsidiaries, the effort has brought a housing renaissance to the tribe.

Brian Mathers, executive vice president of Ho-Chunk Community Development Corp., said the unusually large down payment assistance program his unit runs (up to $65,000 is available if the tribal member is building a new home) gets the process off to a good start.

Through the creation of new job opportunities at Ho-Chunk, Inc., there came the need for additional housing on the Winnebago Reservation. (Ho-Chunk Village)

Through the creation of new job opportunities at Ho-Chunk, Inc., there came the need for additional housing on the Winnebago Reservation. (Ho-Chunk Village)

Almost all of the new homes have a mortgage on them, he said. The tribe has bought an interest in the local Liberty National Bank, and mortgages are also available through Wells Fargo Bank and Banc2 of Oklahoma, owned by the Chickasaw Nation. Many of the loans are through the HUD 184 guaranteed mortgage program for Indians.

Tribal members have a choice of modular or stick built homes, since the tribe owns one of each kind of builder. Modular units can be gotten through Dynamic Homes and stick built units through Blustone Homes.

If the member’s credit is challenged, Ho-Chunk has a CDFI (community development Financial institution) that helps them refinance high-interest debt such as payday loans and also helps them consolidate multiple credit cards into one, lower interest card.

But what if the member hasn’t established a credit history? In an unusual part of the process, the tribe has bought a used car dealer, Titan Motors, with the idea not only of providing car loans at reasonable rates, but of helping members with no credit history to establish a record of being able to pay debt down.

Providing concierge assistance to tribal members is a housing advocate, QuiQui St. Cyr, who talks to people about their options on available lots, discusses stick built versus modular, and refers them to mortgage lenders.

“There’s a lot of demand” for the program, says Mathers, who described housing need on the reservation as being “hundreds and hundreds” of families. As an example, he said the waiting list for apartments in the Village currently is 163.

Ho-Chunk isn’t finished assembling the one-stop shop, either. Next in the works is an Individual Development Account, in which member contributions are matched so their balances build up quickly.

Mathers noted that IDA money could be used to buy existing homes when current owners sell their units, which would create a real estate market, not a common thing on reservations.

Is all of this sustainable? “I think so,” said Mathers, and for further evidence he noted that two more down payment assistance clients had been approved by the council the same day Native Business spoke to him.