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UNIQUE HOME OWNERSHIP PROGRAM: White Earth offers a roof overhead

ESTHER AMES and her three children, Gavin, Jewel and Glory, are enjoying their new home as part of the White Earth program combating homelessness.1 / 2
the 30 houses built for the white earth rent-to-own project are done with green technology, including energy efficient appliances, proper positioning for sun exposure and long-lived steel roofs, equipped for solar panels.2 / 2

Esther Ames knows how tough it can be to make ends meet.

A single mother of three, she was living in Naytahwaush pinching pennies just to pay the heating bill in an old, leaky house.

But that all changed with one phone call.

"It was 4:30 in the afternoon; I was just on my way home from work," said Ames, "and they told me I had been picked."

What Ames had been picked for was the opportunity to move her family into a brand new home.

The White Earth Indian Reservation is combating poverty and homelessness with a new, unique homeownership program.

Thirty new homes are being built as part of the project meant to give homeless people on the reservation a fighting chance at building personal wealth.

That phone call meant Ames was getting one of those 30 homes.

"I cried -- I just cried," said Ames.

"It puts a lump in your throat," said Robert Durant, White Earth secretary treasurer and former housing director, "These are the poorest of the poor, and you get to see them getting into a dream."

The project began two years ago with President Obama's stimulus package.

Some $1.3 million was secured for the reservation through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as a way to help stimulate the economy in impoverished tribal nations.

White Earth took that money and put it into its tax shelter for large corporations.

That $1.3 million was quickly leveraged into just over $7 million investor dollars.

That proved to be enough to build 30 homes for those who need it the most -- 10 are just outside of Naytahwaush, 10 are in the Rice Lake area and 10 are in an existing development on the outskirts of White Earth village.

All but four have been moved into.

Although Durant says there are 200 to 300 families on the waiting list for housing help, the 30 chosen for this development were picked according to their position on the waiting list, their financial need and whether or not they've had a good housing and work history.

Ames met all the requirements.

Residents like her lucky enough to get into one of these houses need no money down, other than a typical deposit.

In lieu of a mortgage payment, residents pay 30 percent of their income in a rent-to-own fashion.

For 15 years, the investors still technically own the homes, during which time the residents' conduct will be monitored and their houses regularly inspected to ensure they're being well cared for and maintained.

"We put them through homebuyer education, financial literacy and a hands-on maintenance course," said Durant, referring to a warehouse in Waubun that contains a house specifically designed for home maintenance education, "We have all the props for the plumbing, electrical, furnace -- all that."

Durant says the idea is for these homeowners to learn the ins and outs of their own homes so that they're not afraid to repair them.

"If you have a commode leak, you're going to rot your floor, and that's when you've got a lot of expenses," said Durant, "and if you've got to hire a contractor and pay them $5,000 to replace the floor, then how are you going to make your rent payments?"

Ames went through the course and says it was empowering for her as a single parent to learn how to take care of some of the simpler problems herself.

"And then as they were teaching these things, like how to patch a hole in the wall, they'd also tell you how much that $10 project would have cost if you had to call somebody," said Ames.

After the 15 years is up and the investors are done "squeezing out their tax shelter dollars," Durant says the Tribal Council will then have the option of holding onto the properties for another 15 years, during which time residents will continue paying "rent."

If the council decides against going that route, ownership of the houses will be immediately handed over to the residents after 15 years.

"So the houses are theirs, whether it's after the first 15 years or after 30," said Durant, "but our goal is to help these people build wealth."

If this does, indeed, begin to happen, residents who pop above the poverty level still get to keep their houses, but their 30 percent will be a larger dollar amount -- up to the fair market share of what those houses would typically bring in for rent.

Half of the homes are three-bedroom homes and the other half are two and four-bedroom homes -- all of them are unique in design.

"I just love it," said Ames, "our house has vaulted pine ceilings, stainless steel appliances, laminate flooring -- it's everything I've ever dreamed of."

Ames says her children love it, too, as 14-year-old Glory, nine-year-old Gavin, and 3-year-old Jewel all had their bedrooms picked out before construction was even completed.

A project priority when building the houses was for them to be created with green technology.

"Each house was set at a certain angle on each lot to allow for the most sunlight to come in through the windows," said Project Coordinator Jim Uran, "They all have spray foam insulation, energy efficient appliances and water heater."

Uran says the houses, which are covered by steel roofs, are also hard-wired for solar panels, which would go up onto the roofs if funding becomes available.

"It's so energy efficient," said Ames. "It makes paying the bills a lot easier."

"This is awesome," said Durant, "it is a wonderful program -- I truly believe White Earth is a benchmark."

Durant says while they're only capturing nine percent of the reservation's known housing need, it's a much-needed start.

"We're so far behind when it comes this (home ownership)," said Durant, "and since the outside economy has gotten bad, we've had people move back onto the reservation to live with family members -- there are many homes that have as many as four families living in them," he said, "so this will give them something. It's pride -- it's full of pride."

And while Ames says she hasn't had a chance to get too far ahead yet, she says she and her children are now comfortable.

"I live close to my work, it's a safe neighborhood -- this is everybody's goal," said Ames. "I'm just so happy."