Owning a home has long been considered a key element of the American dream. But home ownership has been unattainable for many Native Americans even those with good jobs and good credit. Now Native American tribes and financial institutions are working together to create the nation's first generation of reservation homeowners. That's what's happening on Montana's Crow Reservation.
Driving through the sage-covered grasslands and rugged mountains of the Crow Reservation, you notice two inescapable facts: one is the vastness of the landscape. The second is all the trailer homes that are scattered across it. Many have been purchased at exorbitant interest rates. Tribal Economic Development Director Shawn Real Bird says the reason is simple.
"The financing institutions, the only way they see fit to provide financing to an enrolled member [of the tribe] was to give them a mobile home or a double wide [trailer], with no foundation. And if there was a foreclosure on that personal property, they could just bring a truck and just pull it right off the property," he says.
So from the bank's point of view, it would be able to realize some benefit if a person defaulted on his loan. Financing a house was much riskier because the tribe has jurisdiction over lands within reservation boundaries. And much of the reservation is held in trust for the tribe. So banks refused to grant home mortgages there for fear they couldn't foreclose on them.
The result was a cruel irony: even though the Crow tribe has a permanent homeland, members could rarely get loans to build on it. Even Real Bird who has a master's degree and a good job has been relegated to a doublewide trailer, tight quarters for the broad-shouldered former steer wrestler. "Living in a mobile home does bother me. I question what is the use of having all this education and I can't even put it to use to have a brand new home for my family? And I know that question has probably arisen with other families," he says.
Thanks in part to his efforts, a new tribal law allows members to use either land allotted to them or a long-term lease on tribal land as security for a loan. Attorney Sherry Matteucci helped draft the legislation. "It's essential there be a mechanism by which a mortgage lender can enforce its loan and have security for that loan. But at the same time there has to be a protection for the trust integrity of the land. And that's what we did," she says.
The law specifies that in the event of a foreclosure, the land or lease can only be resold within the tribe. That provision helped reassure skeptics who worried that the Crows might lose control of their lands.
"Going back to our history, there's always a paranoia that somebody's going to do something in terms of taking away the land or doing something to hurt one's authority or one's sovereignty, and so that suspicion is always there. I had to overcome that paranoia," says Shawn Real Bird.
The new law means the Crows can take advantage of home finance company Fannie Mae's pledge to invest one-and-a-quarter billion dollars on reservations by the end of the decade. Bob Simpson is chair of Fannie Mae's Native American Business Council. He says in the past 10 years, the company has financed mortgages on nearly 200 reservations. "Home equity is the single largest wealth builder for Americans. Now if we can help families on Native American reservations own a home, they'll get that same opportunity that the rest of America shares, and sometimes takes for grantedthe opportunity to turn each monthly mortgage payment into equity," he says.
And attorney Sherry Matteucci says that equity can in turn be used to start small businesses, which are sorely lacking on the Crow reservation. "Five years from now, I want to go down to the Crow agency and I want to see a beauty shop and a grocery store and I want to see a couple more gas stations. You know, these are things that can be real, if you support people with their energy and their ideas and make it possible for them to have the same opportunities that everybody else has," she says.
But taking out a mortgage can be daunting, it requires financial skills and knowledge that's been in short supply on most reservations.
Here on the Crow reservation, dozens of people are crammed into a financial literacy class designed to help bridge that gap. Graduates are eligible for thousands of dollars in downpayment assistance.
Velma Pretty On Top is executive director of the Native American Development Corporation, the non-profit group that offers the class. "We had a chief, Plenty Coups, who always encouraged Crows to become educated. And so his quote is that: 'with education you are the white man's equal, but without it, you are his victim,' and that's exactly it. We need to educate ourselves and those in our tribe to learn more so that they can get a better interest rate, they can stay away from the predatory lenders, you know, that type of thing. And that's what we're trying to teach them," she says.
Linda Bird In Ground is one of the students. She says the prospect of becoming a homeowner was the motivation she needed to take the class. "I don't think we as Crowsnobody fixes a budgetwe just live from paycheck to paycheck. But for me, this is really helping me to know how to manage my money, yeah. And I'm looking forward to being a part of this, trying to get a home and being able to be approved if I go in that bank," she says.
That day is probably a ways off for Bird In Ground. But there are plenty of Crows who are poised to take advantage of the new law.
"I cried, when I heard, and [I'm] kind of getting anxious to start, says Denise Old Elk Stops, who hopes to begin construction this fall here on a high remote piece of ground that she and her husband have picked out. It offers sweeping 360 degree views of the reservation's wide open landscape, and she knows exactly the kind of house she wants to view it from. "Yeah I've been carrying around this magazine since 1995 of a log home that I wanted. That's my dream, I guess, and I still have it and that's the plan I'd like to go with."
Economic Development Director Shawn Real Bird's dream is even bigger. He believes the law will benefit not only tribal members currently living on the reservation, but that it will spark a homecoming among those who've left. "I'm predicting probably the biggest housing boom the Crow Nation has ever seen in its history since the teepee days," says Shawn Real Bird.