How a private company is bringing affordable houses to Indian Country

Decreased federal assistance has caused a dearth in affordable housing.

 

Last year, in Yreka, California, a town of 8,000 in Northern California’s Shasta Valley, Sarah Abono, a member of the Karuk Tribe, moved into a four-bedroom house in a new development on tribal land. She, her husband and three children, who had been living in a modest unit nearby, are enthusiastic about their new dwelling. “This house was a blessing, really,” she said.

“Everybody gets their own room. … We have a beautiful view,” she said. “It’s nice that there’s a lot of young families moving in. Everybody seems to be happy.” Abono’s husband had been laid off, so the new house is especially welcome now.

In recent years, affordable housing creation in Indian Country has been languishing due to the decreased buying power of tribes’ federal housing assistance. But one company is helping alleviate some of those woes for people like Abono and her family. One for-profit consultant — Travois, based in Kansas City, Missouri — has helped build more than 5,000 homes on tribal homelands, most of them in 17 states in the West, including the one Abono moved into. Over the past two decades, the company has raised $650 million for affordable Indian housing by leveraging the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit, created in 1986 during the Reagan administration. (That credit remains unchanged in the new tax legislation signed into law this January by President Donald Trump.) Travois works to get investors onto reservations through the grant and, in turn, gets tax credits for investments in Indian housing.

Sarah Abono, center back, a member of the Karuk Tribe, and her family — husband, Paul, and their children Alyssa, right, Sophia, left, and Vinny, front — at their new home on Karuk tribal land in Yreka, California. The home was built with the help of a private company that uses a federal program to attract investors for projects in Indian Country.
Courtesy of Travois

Since its incorporation in 1995, Travois has helped facilitate nearly 200 housing projects and 5,301 homes for Native Americans, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians. It works as an intermediary between tribes and private funders, teaching tribes about the tax credit program and teaching the funders what they need to know about Indian Country. “We have to break down the barriers and obtain financing,” said Elizabeth Bland Glynn, a Travois chief executive. Travois also educates its capital market partners on the realities of working in Indian Country. “We make sure they understand tribal sovereignty and other issues.”

Housing construction in Indian Country has been dominated by the federal government for decades, with assistance first authorized by the Housing Act of 1937 and then augmented by the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act in 1996. But over the past 20 years, the buying power of Indian Housing Block Grant funds has fallen by a third. Today, because of inflation and an increased emphasis on fixing older houses, fewer houses are being built in Indian Country. “New unit construction has dropped in recent years, with only 2,000 new units (built) between 2011 and 2014,” said Tony Walters, executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council and a member of the Cherokee Nation. “(The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) is estimating less than 1,000 new units in future years as tribes maintain existing housing stock.”

Travois has been able to fill in some of that gap. In Arizona alone, the company has worked on projects with nine tribal housing entities and completed 32 developments with more than a thousand homes at a cost of $219 million. In desert locations like Arizona, the builders benefit from a year-round season. “It’s a good continual market for construction workers,” Bland Glynn said. With the warm climate, projects feature touches like outdoor patios and solar panels.

Bland Glynn said her father, David Bland, who started the company, first brought the financing program to reservations while working for the Minneapolis Federal Reserve. Once he traveled to reservations in Minnesota and saw the great housing need there, Bland realized credits could work in Indian Country. “He started very small,” she said. “Now we have almost 50 employees.”

The firm guides Indian housing entities through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit process, which involves getting tax credits awarded by state housing finance agencies, and then selling them to equity investors through capital market firms. The tribal groups use Travois because of its track record in getting equity to build thousands of homes. Tribes get paid the developer’s fee allowed by the housing tax credits, and Travois gets paid by the tribes as a consultant. “We help our clients plan the entire construction,” Bland Glynn said. “We take our instructions from the tribes.”

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