Cheryl A. Causley, executive director of the Bay Mills Housing Authority, makes sure that the units she manages for the Michigan-based Ojibwe tribe are well maintained. (Mark Fogarty)

Tribe Plans Big Hilltop Housing Development

Mark Fogarty
7/9/13

The Bay Mills Indian Community of Michigan is planning a large real estate development which should help reduce the waiting list for housing for this Ojibwe tribe. The initiative, to be called Wadiiwong Oden (Hilltop Village), calls for 77 single-family units to be built, along with a commercial property, at a hilltop site at a total cost of at least $6 million.

The tribe, whose homeland is nearly 3,500 acres of land on the shores of Lake Superior, has applied for Indian Community Development Block Grant funds for project infrastructure. The deal has involved a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service, as there is little remaining developable land on its reservation, which contains extensive wetlands.

Currently, the tribe’s waiting list for land on which to build homes numbers more than 80, according to said Cheryl A. Causley, executive director of the Bay Mills Housing Authority. And with a large population of people under 28 (about half of the tribe’s 2,000 members), she knew demand for housing would only increase. Housing development is not under way yet, but the tribe has built the road leading to the planned community with funds secured from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Indian Community Development Block Grant, if obtained, would be for $669,000 for electricity, natural gas, cable, phone and Internet, and the tribe’s plan calls for about $1.2 million for clean water and wastewater disposal from the Indian Health Service. The small tribe, which receives only $750,000 a year from the federal government for housing assistance, is still seeking the balance of the money needed.

But Causley, who is also the chairwoman of the National American Indian Housing Coalition, is an adept manager of funds. The housing authority manages 169 units of housing and is raising money to build “fair market” housing units by reconveying—that is, selling—its older home units built by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, turning renters into owners of their units.

The housing authority has reconveyed half of the total 132 Housing and Urban Development “Mutual Help” units it managed. Besides the 61 units remaining from that program, it manages 48 low-rent units, 28 fair-market units (allowing for higher income tenants) and a 32-unit apartment complex.

Causley said that the housing authority pays special attention to the maintenance of its  Housing and Urban Development units, which can deteriorate into eyesores as they have on many reservations around the country. A windshield tour of Bay Mills homes revealed neat, tidy houses nestled into the pines and birch trees of the heavily wooded area. The tour of the reservation ended with a view of Lake Superior and U.S. border guards keeping a close eye on Canada, just a few miles away.

An unusual aspect of Bay Mills is that there is a fairly high percentage of mortgage finance on the reservation. As of last year, 74 of the 324 houses on the reservation had mortgages, or more than 20 percent. That is atypical because the community is entirely trust land, and mortgage lenders have generally shied away from making loans on trust land, because of its complicated legal status. Six more mortgages have been done to date this year, Causley said.

According to Causley, the housing authority has two lenders that will make mortgages on the reservation and uses federal mortgage programs like those run by the departments of Housing and Urban Development and the Agriculture.

For all of the optimism associated with Wadiiwong Oden, the Bay Mills Indian Community has its share of problems. Many of the tribe’s members live in poverty, including 49 percent of those with children under five. However, unemployment is fairly low for tribal homelands, about 11.8 percent, with large numbers of tribal members employed at its two casinos.

There are also some commercial fishermen—Causley’s husband among them—who catch and sell whitefish and trout from Lake Superior.

Such assets offer hope for the future. With her eyes on the additional funding for the tribe, Causley said she is looking forward to meeting the need “for members to have safe decent housing, meaningful employment, excellent education, and a great community [in which] to live, work and play.”

Related:

Tribal Housing: Big Challenges Remain, Some Positives Seen as Well

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