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Tribe building affordable housing on reservation

Mashantucket — For the longest time, “affordable” and “housing” never seemed to go together here.

On a reservation that resembles a Fairfield County subdivision, it was little wonder.

But times — and economic conditions — change. And the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, whose Foxwoods Resort Casino has struggled in recent years, has taken a hard look at its housing stock and the needs of tribal members.

Last month, it launched an affordable housing project, breaking ground on two Joseph Williams Road duplexes (a total of four units) that should be ready for occupancy in September.

Jean Swift, the tribal treasurer, got things started after being named chairman of the tribe’s Housing Committee.

“About 18 months ago, we began holding housing forums to try and get an idea of what was working and what wasn’t,” Swift said in an interview this week. “We realized we really had to make our housing policies more equitable.”

For example, she said, some tribal members seeking rental units had languished for years on a waiting list. The Housing Committee, with the tribal council’s approval, decided to do away with the list, replacing it with selection criteria and instituting a lottery among the qualified candidates.

In another change, the council has fully accepted the landlord’s burden of responsibility for routine maintenance and repairs of rental units.

“We hadn’t always treated tenants as tenants,” Swift said. “Now, we’re looking to hire another handyman.”

Swift said her executive assistant, James Jackson, came up with a slogan that encapsulates the new approach: ”Come Home to Mashantucket, The Community of Choice.”

“We want our members to be worldly, but to be comfortable living here,” Swift said.

Roughly a third of the tribe’s more than 1,000 members live on the reservation, a number that never has diminished, according to Jackson, despite the Foxwoods revenue decline that forced the council to curtail and then terminate the distribution of casino profits to tribal members.

Some 200 homes dot the reservation, including about 100 that are mortgaged and 20 that are rentals. The rest have been purchased outright through paid-up mortgages.

The tribe is financing the affordable housing project through the sale of off-reservation properties, at the same time eliminating the need to pay local property taxes, Jackson said. No federal or state funding is involved. The tribe plans to use proceeds from the sales of the new units to build more of them.

Each of the affordable units consists of three bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, a laundry room, a full bathroom, a half-bathroom and an oversized, one-car garage. Each will sell for less than $200,000, Jackson said.

The tribe, acting as general contractor, will help oversee next month’s installation of the modular units, which are being built by Westchester Modular Homes of Wingdale, N.Y. Access to water, sewer and natural gas service has been in place on Joseph Williams Road for years.

Tribal members interested in buying the units will have to qualify and participate in a lottery. They can apply for financing through a Mashantucket Pequot loan program or via the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The department’s Section 184 Loan Program, specifically created to provide mortgages to tribal members, accepts minimal down payments and guarantees low interest rates and protection from predatory lenders.

“They could be for young families, or people looking to downsize,” Swift said of the affordable units. “They’re smaller than what we've built in the past — a reflection of our financial realities. Our vision is to make this the community of choice (for tribal members). It’s their right, their privilege to live here.”

Twitter: @bjhallenbeck


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