By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
For the fourth year, the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls is offering used military houses to members of the Chippewa Cree tribe for a pittance.
The homes were slated to be demolished after the Air Force changed the minimum size requirement for housing in 1999. About 200 houses that military families had been living in since the 1960s were suddenly too small, and would be scrapped for new, bigger ones.
A nonprofit organization called Operation Walking Shield stepped in to save the homes. As a result of their efforts, Congress included in the 1999 defense appropriations bill a provision allowing Malmstrom to relocate the houses to Montana tribes that requested them.
Since then, 104 houses have been sold to the reservations for $1 each, 55 to Rocky Boy alone.
The homes may be old, but they don't look old, said Cindy O'Connell, an Air Force realty officer who helps manage the project. "They're very well maintained," she said. "These are very nice houses."
An informational meeting for interested buyers of the 50 houses was held Wednesday on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.
"We have over 475 families waiting for homes that we can't fulfill right now because of the building constraints coming down from Washington," said Susie Hay, executive director of the tribal housing authority. Hay said the houses would help alleviate that problem.
The Chippewa Cree Housing Authority found out out about three weeks ago that the three-bedroom, 1-bath homes were available, housing program manager Roger St. Pierre said Thursday. The homes had not been expected until 2004.
St. Pierre said about 50 interested buyers came to the meeting. "There was quite an interest," he said.
After three years of receiving homes, "We haven't got any bad comments," St. Pierre said. "Everybody so far seems happy with the homes."
The price of each 1,200-square-foot home varies depending on the location and cost of transportation, Hay said, but comes to about $30,000 for the buyer, much lower than market price.
That doesn't mean the housing authority pockets $30,000 per home. Hay said all of the money goes to paying for transportation and construction costs, like pouring the foundation, so the housing authority - a nonprofit organization - makes no money from the homes.
People at Rocky Boy have taken advantage of the opportunity, requesting and receiving more than other Montana tribes since the project began.
Rocky Boy received 55 of the 104 houses made available since 1999. North Cheyenne took 27, and Fort Belknap took 22. The 50 slated for this year make up nearly half of the 106 remaining homes.
That is because Rocky Boy is doing better than most reservations in the state when it comes to transporting and installing the homes, O'Connell said.
O'Connell said Rocky Boy is set to receive 50 of the remaining units because "they have a plan of how to execute the move and set up the homes."
Other tribes like the Blackfeet and Crow nations have expressed interest, O'Connell said, but faced with the difficulties of transporting the houses over long distance and financing buyers to pay for that transportation, "They didn't find a way to make it happen."
The housing authority at Rocky Boy has found a way, informing would-be homeowners where they can get financing, and contracting the transportation and construction for them once they get it.
"I think they were very cost-effective" said Dennis Wynott, executive director of Operation Walking Shield.
All of the Montana tribes were offered the houses, he said.
Wynott said the number of financing options tribes are able to marshal enhances their members' ability to pay for them.
Hay said the lowest-income buyers at Rocky Boy get low-interest loans from the Rural Housing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Veterans Affairs, while others get mortgages for low-income people from banks across the country, from Independence Bank and Wells Fargo in Havre to the Native American Bank in Denver, Hay said.
Without these programs, Hay said, many people on reservations would have trouble buying homes.
"It's really a stretch for us to find someone to loan money to people on trust property," she said. All Indian reservations are trust property.
If there are not enough financed buyers, Hay said, the houses will still be set up on Rocky Boy and rented out. The tribe is looking for land on which to put a cluster of rentals.
Of the 12 Malmstrom houses brought to Rocky Boy last year, Hay said, 10 were purchased and the other two were rented. Nine of the 10 that were purchased were bought with help - two with low-interest loans, and seven with special mortgages for the low income. Hay said that distribution is typical.
Rocky Boy has been effective not just in financing and transporting the homes, Wynott said, but doing it on time. That, he said, is important to the Air Force, which will demolish the homes if the tribes do not take them before the deadline.
"They have been very, very good about keeping the schedule," he said.
This year, Hay said, will be more difficult to line up qualified buyers because the houses weren't expected to be ready until 2004. However, the Air Force received funding to replace the homes earlier than expected. When word came three weeks ago that the houses would be ready this year, it was a mixed blessing, Hay said: The tribes would get houses sooner, but buyers would have less time to get approved.
Instead of the normal six to nine months to get through a gantlet of paperwork - financing, environmental assesments, and more - interested buyers will only have two. The housing authority set a deadline of May 1 for all paperwork.
"Probably we're not going to get enough qualified buyers in the time that we do have," she said.
The tribe must either rush the buyers or risk losing the houses.
Without the May 1 deadline, Hay said, the authority will not have time to solicit bids from contractors to pour foundations, transport the houses, dig sewers, and set up water and electricity.
If the houses are not moved up to Rocky Boy before the snow flies in the fall, Hay said, the Air Force's offer will lapse, and they will stay in Great Falls - and will then be demolished.
Operation Walking Shield has distributed more than 660 Air Force homes to tribes in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Montana since 1986.