Lee Allen
One of the 14 newly-constructed homes in the Tohono O'odham San Xavier District

New Digs in the Sonoran Desert: Tohono O’odham Members Line Up to Live in Villages

Lee Allen

Members of the Tohono O’odham tribe have already been standing in line for years waiting for construction to start.

But that work has begun and the short term results are positive. “When I got here 2 ½ years ago, we had well over 80 vacant and abandoned homes across the nation that were tagged and vandalized despite a housing plan that had been sitting inactive since 2005,” says Pete Delgado, executive director of the Tohono O’odham Ki:Ki Association. “In recent months, we’ve aggressively accelerated our mission of providing affordable housing for our Nation’s members.”

When Delgado was hired, the Association had accumulated $32 million in unspent federal government allocations and set-aside funds. “In recent months, we’ve spent $27 million of that and in the process touched hundreds of homes in some form -- renovations of leaky roofs, installation of energy-efficient windows, addition of indoor plumbing, rehabbing our rentals, installing basic infrastructure.  We’re in the year 2014 and we’re still dealing with homes that are just now receiving basic services that most would take for granted.  But we’ve about finished with all the old projects we had and are now looking ahead at a 5-10 year plan to keep pace with the growing need.”

"The Team" that makes housing happen--Pete Delgado (left), Novalene Garcia, Rudy Torres (Lee Allen)

Part of that plan involves a recent $2.75 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (together with $850,000 in tribal matching funds) to build housing on 24 sites across the Nation’s 500-square-miles. “This award represents a major step forward in addressing our housing needs, which are significant,” said Tribal Chairman Dr. Ned Norris, Jr.

The new construction budget in San Xavier District alone ($2.2 million) is showing tangible results with 14 newly constructed homes sitting in a developed neighborhood.  “We could always do more, but we’ve made tremendous strides in getting new construction off the ground and this is a good project for the Nation to take pride in,” according to TOKA Construction Director Rudy Torres.

The new units range from two-to-three-to-four bedrooms and were allocated based on the length of time members had been on the waiting list, the size of their families, and the urgency of their need.  In many cases, older adobe homes built years ago for 4 and 5 people were now housing up to 12-15 in the same square footage increasing the risk of the myriad of problems assorted with crowded living conditions.

Among the lucky new residential recipients is Marlinda Alvarez, who moved with her son into their new quarters in December 2013. “I was born and raised here, grew up just down the road in a much smaller place that had a lot of people living there,” she said.

The first day she put the key in the door of her new home she felt “happy, nervous, scared, overwhelmed,” she said, “because it still feels like I don’t own it, but it really is mine.”

Starting with basically a couch and a TV, she says: “It’s big and bare now as I sit back, look around, and take it all in, but I’ve got the rest of my life to fill the house up.”

It’s slow-going building just about anything in the middle of the Northern Sonoran desert. “There’s a whole lot of components here,” says Ki:Ki Association Residential Director Novalene Garcia. “Our districts are composed of many little villages way out in the desert-- in the middle of nowhere-- so we have to develop basic infrastructure systems first, before we can draw up plans to build a house.  Things move slowly on reservations and while I see progress being made, I’d like it to move faster.”

There’s a certain irony here in the fact that while Garcia has spent 20 years with the Association teaching and preaching the benefits of living in a HUD house, she still lives in a manufactured unit.   “Some day I’d like to be on the list to move from mobile quarters to brick and mortar,” she says.

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