Ohkay Owingeh Housing Authority Executive Director Tomasita Duran explains the process by which Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo established Tsigo bugeh Village and molded it to fit the culture and society of the Pueblo.
Duran, Tomasita. "Tsigo bugeh Village." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 17, 2009. Presentation.
"I am very honored to stand up here today and share our experience and process in developing Tsigo bugeh Village and very thankful for the Harvard Project and Honoring Nations.
Tsigo bugeh Village has a theme. And what that theme is 'traditional living with a modern touch.' It's a tax credit project of 40 rental units; 31 are tax credit, nine are market. It serves families at 40, 50 and 60 percent of median income. It has nine buildings. Within each building there are five, four to five units. The bedrooms are one, two and three. Its amenities are a community center with a laundry facility, a computer lab, kitchen, and meeting space, which is available to our community members at Ohkay Owingeh.
In developing Tsigo bugeh Village, we looked at the ingredients of a successful plan and first of all, it entailed a vision, aspiration of high quality, cultural significance, community-driven development, willingness to explore, unchartered, untested financing arenas, understanding and patience for long-term planning, accountability to the community, a mixture of skills, good intentions, and serendipity. Tsigo bugeh Village, the project concept, the vision; of course, we had community involvement. This was an opportunity where we were able to utilize our own community members to provide input in how we want to live today in terms of developing units that meet our community needs. And that was extremely important. And I have to say that we've got to thank HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] for that. Because of the NAHASDA [Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996] and that Act and how it allows the flexibility today in how we develop, we, within our own tribe, are able to make those decisions. And so with that I have to say thank you to HUD.
It's specific to Ohkay Owingeh and it's specific because we got that information from our own tribal members. It's meeting our cultural needs. The kitchens and living rooms are large enough to where we can accommodate for feast days. We have feast days where we feed people all day long in celebration. And so that's really important. And of course, we're looking at this as a model project of self-sufficiency. But we first had to go through an assessment stage to determine our strengths and weaknesses. Of course we had...at the time our weaknesses were lack of financials -- we were a new housing authority, we had to get those in place -- perceived gaps in staff development expertise, knowledge gaps regarding marketing and financing options, accountability of the vision from the tribe, infrastructure needs, existing payment delinquency that we had at the time, and of course the NAHASDA leveraging, which was very different from the past. So with these weaknesses we had to look at, 'Well, what are our strengths?' Our strengths were, of course, we had a motivated staff and a vision -- that I had, I felt we needed to fulfill -- and the access to resources out there such as the Rose Fellowship, the Mortgage Finance Authority, Enterprise Foundation and the coalition.
We then looked at a planning of the timeline. We had to develop a delinquency, an eviction policy, and tribal enforcement. And so by doing that, we had to meet with our tribal council and with our court system to share the information we had at hand. We had a high delinquency of over $100,000 that families owed to the Housing Authority. And part of the problem is -- and this is pretty much with every tribe, is what I'm hearing -- is that due to that, that is caused by non-enforcement, and non-enforcement, not having the commitment and the support from people to help cure that problem. And what that means is that when somebody becomes delinquent on tribal land and you try to enforce your eviction policy and in the end are planning to evict, first thing they do is go crying to the governor or anyone on tribal council. And so with that everything stops. And that's happening all over.
In our case, we needed to put a stop to that, and the only way to do that was to get everybody on board to truly understand what the effects of this problem [were]. And so by meeting with tribal council, literally showing them the list of the delinquency, what the amounts were, what the exact problem was and what the solution was and what we had to do and why we had to do it, which was going to affect our block grant. We are obligated under the Mutual Help program to not only maintain the units, but also collect and fulfill the buying of the unit. People are buying these units and that's something that's really not perceived in that way. And so we had to just clarify all of that, get everybody on board to understand why it was necessary, we had to enforce the policy, explain the policy, share it with everyone. And of course the same thing with the court system -- get them to understand, we're going to be coming to you eventually, and if we do this is why. And so once we were able to get past that, everyone supported the enforcement, the governor sent out a letter to the community explaining that they were supporting what we had to do, and so we started the enforcing of the policy. And so because of that, we were able to reduce our delinquency and I'm glad to say that today it's down to $5,000. And on those $5,000 we have payback agreements. Unfortunately, we in the process evicted approximately like 35 families, but that's the reality of what we had to do.
And so we had to increase in-house staff and capacity. When we first opened for operations, it was myself and a secretary. And so we had to of course increase our staff and get ourselves, have a good foundation to be able to move forward and do what we needed to do. We began to structure the project concept in financing. Our NAHASDA block grant is only $565,000 and with that, we are required to maintain operations, develop units, rehab units for our community. And so we knew that was, for a development of what we were looking at, there was no way we were going to accomplish that. So now we had to go into the arena of looking at leveraging -- leveraging I've never done before. And so this was all new to me and basically, I was learning as I was going. And so looking at all the different financing that was out there and what we had to do, it was a huge challenge. We applied for tax credits. I was introduced to tax credits by Deborah Webster and I understood it, I got it, but we had to get the board educated, we had to get the tribal council educated. This is a new type of financing being used on tribal lands and the rental units that you develop with tax credits and because you have an investor involved and owns 99% of your project, this is all so new and scary to our council. So it took us approximately two years to really get them to understand and support the project and approve the project. So that was a challenge in itself, but we did it.
We then began community design meetings. We had a waiting list of 80 families and I felt, this was an opportunity now that we could develop -- where whatever we wanted in terms of how we wanted our units -- and so we utilized our own community to help us figure that out. So through these community design meetings is where we had input and of course everyone wanted big living rooms, big kitchens cause the HUD homes we have today just do not accommodate that need. I put together a really good development project team. I had great people who were very knowledgeable and experienced, because this is the first development project I was to do and so I needed a lot of help. We had to meet our tax-credit deadlines and test. We then began construction drawings. And of course, we had a blessing of the site. We had our investor -- who was the National Development Council -- and they are very, very great to work with. Of course started negotiations. We began construction and then completed construction by December 31st, 2003. This planning timeline began in 1999 and the project was completed in 2003. So it took several years before we actually were able to move families in.
Within this process there was concerns of the tribe. One of course was the liability and the financial risk of the tax credits. The other was the limited waivers [of] sovereign immunity that we were allowed to give and we had to give. There was some debt to the project, the infrastructure and capacity. We knew at the time our wastewater was not able to accommodate the current project. Actually it had...it was only going to be able to accommodate the 40 units and beyond that it was not. So what we did, in order to get support from the tribal council, we had to make a commitment that we would address that problem at the same time. So what that meant was we had to improve our wastewater system. And I am happy to say, that through an ICDBG [Indian Community Development Block Grant Program] grant we were able to improve the wastewater system and we are now able to accommodate future development over the next 10 years. It's somewhat of a band-aid fix, but we're looking at a long-term solution as well. The other problem was our water. When the architects were going to begin -- actually, when the project was underway in construction -- it turns out that they were testing the water and fire protection; our fire hydrants were weak. The water, the pressure, there was absolutely no pressure -- in some cases there was no water at all -- so we had to address that problem as well. And tribal council again said we had to come up with a solution and so through that we were able to increase our water pressure. We have two new water tanks that have been installed and again, thanks to an ICDBG grant, we were able to do that. And we are taken care of in terms of water for over the next 50 years. So Tsigo bugeh Village opened our eyes to problems we had with our infrastructure that, at the time, we weren't even aware of. So again it was just a matter of time I guess, and thank god that we were able to address all those problems.
The capacity of OOHA [Ohkay Owingeh Housing Authority], the financial capacity, as I said. We had to look at other financing out there and leveraging, the management capacity, do we have enough experience, (we didn't) but we got it from other resources. The selection of families on the waiting list. Our tribal council was so used to getting a list of families and they select the families for the units. And that's how HUD did it in the old method. Well, it wasn't going to work that way this time just because of tax credits being a different type of funding source, their requirements are different. The families had to qualify, income qualify and meet other criteria. And then of course there was the issue of tribal members versus non tribal members. So that...I never realized how much of an issue that was in terms of allowing non-tribal members to live on the reservation. And so it was, the process is now if you are a non-tribal member, the only way you can live at Tsigo bugeh Village is if you have an affiliation. And that could be through marriage, through children or if you're co-habitating -- or shacking up, as our tribal council says. But all non-tribal members who want to live at Tsigo bugeh Village have to get approval by tribal council. And there's a process they go through and they literally stand in front of our tribal council and get approved.
The other issue was married versus single families, married families versus single families, and this is another huge issue that tribal council is really reluctant because they feel if they approve a family that's not married, they're supporting the co-habitating and they just are totally against it. And at one point they even told us, 'Well, we're seriously considering only allowing families that are married.' So they wanted to know if they enforced that what was the percentage at Tsigo Bugeh Village. There's only two families that were married. We would have to evict everyone else, which is so crazy. But it's a huge issue. And the first thing they ask the families that come before them for approval, 'When are you getting married?' They do. And I prepare the families, 'cause it's never, that's one of the issues. It's such a huge issue with our tribal council and marriage to them is very important.
Of course the safety and on-site security. Right now we have two cops, tribal cops that live on the property so that has helped a lot. And of course the design. They wanted to make sure that we're designing -- everybody is happy with the design -- and the impact on the existing adjacent properties 'cause it's right in the middle of surrounding subdivisions and of course those families weren't happy about it. There were key decisions that had to be made. The clustered and traditional density. Our ancestors actually introduced that to us through our pueblo. The way it exists today, they were clustered housing and the density was very dense. And so that already existed. Unfortunately our community had not really accepted it and acknowledged it because of what HUD did to us, by moving us away into subdivisions. So we had to utilize our realty department, to help get their support for one, and then help introduce the idea to the community and get their acceptance on it.
Internal expertise and architecture and construction. We were able to utilize the Rose Fellowship -- thanks to Jonathan Rose and Enterprise Foundation -- and we had a Rose Fellow within our organization who helped us through this process as well. And most important we had community input and wisdom from our elder tribal members. And what we did was when we started our community design meetings, we had a few of our elders come and talk about what it was like living in the pueblo and what it meant to them and the importance and how it developed them into the individuals that were today. And so that was really helpful in just getting, seeing how this is a positive thing, not a negative thing, [because] people were so used to having their 100x100 lot space and space away from neighbors. So we went through that process and elders helped with that.
And then of course ownership of the project. Right now it's a rental project. We are talking, into the future, what happens to Tsigo Bugeh? And one of the things we're looking at is the possibility that after the 15-year period, they may convert to ownership. So that's the other thing we're going to eventually have to make a decision on. And of course this is a model project for our tribal master plan. We've incorporated, so that within our tribal master plan, we've utilized some of the methods and ideas into the plan based on what we went through with the project. The financing is NAHASDA, a $700,000 home...of $310,000, the affordable home program $310,000. The risk share loan was $180,000, the general partner put in $40,000 and a general partner put in another $105,000, and of course NDC [National Development Council] equity contribution was $2.3 million. So the total project was $3.9 million. So all that leveraging also made the project very complicating, because that meant that we had a lot of rules to follow. The financing of the infrastructure was our IHBG [Indian Housing Block Grant Program] of $300,000 and the RHED [Rural Housing and Economic Development] of $405,000 for a total of $700,000.
Why tax credits? At the time we knew our NAHASDA [funding] was not going to accommodate what we needed for development, we had to leverage and of course, as I said, we had a motivated staff. The ownership and timeline are very similar to the Mutual Help program so the community is somewhat familiar with it. And it was an opportunity for us to earn a developer fee. And it involved the board and tribal council, lots of education. We had TA [technical assistance] available through MFA [Mortgage Finance Authority], Enterprise Foundation, neighborhood housing services and coalitions. The potential project was self scored well in MFA. We scored the highest, we won the actual design award through MFA. The interest of MFA was an asset for tribes, because now they're willing to work better with tribes. And of course the self-sufficiency from HUD. And we're looking at this as a long-term investment.
There's issues that we experienced, but we found solutions to those. The first issue was the traditional and conservative pueblo. Ohkay Owingeh is a traditional pueblo. And of course the solution was lots of training, planning and discussions with the staff, board, and of course tribal council. The tribe had little exposure to new financing; the project's financing is structured with no permanent debt financing; the need to integrate programs into OOHA -- so we pulled in partners such as MFA and Enterprise Foundation to help with the applications, the budgets, the pro forma, and of course training us. The high cost of infrastructure -- we found funds through RHED to cover that. The inconsistencies in the financing rules -- of course we used the most stringent, which would cover everything else, and the inconsistency of payment history -- we took care of that through the council's support; and the need for consistency in the income-supporting operating costs -- of course we had to support it by rental subsidy from our IHGB.
So the lessons to be learned: prepare in-house capacity, staff training and policies; keep the tribe in the loop, most important; get financials in line ASAP, if they're not; address infrastructure needs; prepare to market the project; calculate risks, they can't be avoided, unfortunately; and ask for help if needed.
Today the operation -- we've been in operation since 2003, approximately six years. We've had barriers and bumps during operations within the first three years. Within the last three years, we have managed to improve our operations, increasing rents by 5 percent every year. Turnover has decreased, collected on fees for community center -- late fees, force account crew helps with the turnover quickly therefore, income is generated. We filed in court stipulated judgments on ARs with past tenants and ordered payback agreements by courts; cut back on some expenses where necessary. Income generated right now is $158,000 per year, the expenses are $121,000, and our net operating income is $36,000. So Tsigo bugeh Village, to some extent, is close to meeting its goal of becoming self-sufficient. We anticipate by 2011 to be fully self-sufficient.
As a unique project with so many new elements introduced to our tribe, it explains the adapting growing pains we have experienced, but with the same token it has taught us to better understand, plan, be creative, and accept the challenges that come with the free opportunity of developing for our community at Ohkay Owingeh. And with the award from the Harvard Project Honoring Nations is how we are creating a website for the Housing Authority, which will provide information on all our projects. Tsigo bugeh Village will have specific processes and information: how, why, where and what we did to develop a successful project. We anticipate to have it up and running by the end of October. Through this mechanism is how we plan to share as much information that could help other tribes and for that, we are thankful for Honoring Nations and the Harvard Project."