American Indian housing is going to miss one of its most effective advocates with the retirement of Eric Schmieder, the longtime Indian housing specialist at the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Agency.
I have known Eric since 2005, when he was a Native American lending specialist for Wells Fargo Bank (he also has worked as a rural housing specialist for USDA).
In my 20 years of covering Indian real estate and mortgages, I have known many housing advocates with a real zeal for tackling housing production on Indian reservations. But rarely have I known anyone with the combination of wanting to get Indian housing done (his advocate side) and knowing where to get the money to do it (his banker side). Add to that the advocacy of tribal councils and tribal housing entities and the support of the MFA and you have a lot of energy behind generating new construction.
When I met Eric I told him I was interested in seeing and reporting on houses rising in Indian country, and over the years he has taken me to see projects that sometimes seemed miraculous, houses sprouting on the sides of a mountain, houses being built next to a tribal bison range, houses being built in the desert by the dozens and scores with loans from the nation’s biggest commercial banks.
When I started covering Indian housing two decades ago, housing activity like this was literally unthinkable. For one thing, America’s banks had drawn collective red lines around the country’s Native homelands to mark them as areas where they would not make mortgages (GAO counted 91 mortgages done in all of Indian country during 1992-1996). What housing production there was came from a couple of antiquated programs run by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The passage of NAHASDA (Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act) in 1996 brought housing self-rule to tribes with the directive they should partner with private sources like banks and mortgage lenders to extend the reach of their housing allocations from the federal government. A new Indian mortgage program, the HUD 184, was designed to encourage banks to lend on reservations with 100 percent of their outlays guaranteed by the federal government.
Progress has been slow, though. This isn’t easy lending, or easy housing construction. But slowly, and with the energy of tribes and advocates like Eric, it is getting easier. (The HUD 184, for instance, has passed $100 million in finance in New Mexico.)
Tapping private, state, nonprofit and federal funding sources has been a specialty of Eric’s, who has also been the guiding spirit behind the New Mexico Tribal Homeownership Coalition for the past decade. I can illustrate this elaborate quilting together of finance sources he had a hand in by describing three projects Eric and MFA worked on with dedicated people from the tribes and their housing authorities.
North of Albuquerque, the San Felipe Housing Authority has built dozens and dozens of homes in the desert for members of the pueblo. When Eric took me there in 2013 to see San Felipe’s Black Mesa subdivision, 28 homes had been put up and another dozen were in progress. Plans were underway for another 28, and 150 homes in all. One hundred fifty houses! That’s thinking big.
MFA was providing down payment assistance for HUD 184 mortgages for the new homeowners. Project money was obtained by a loan from Bank of America guaranteed through HUD’s Title VI program. Other funding sources included Indian Community Development Block Grant money and HUD’s Rural Innovation program.
Another funding quilt was apparent at Nambe Pueblo, north of Santa Fe. Here, $10 million had been raised when I visited it with Eric in 2013. Homes were beginning to be seen in this remote and picturesque area next to the tribe’s bison range and between two mountain ranges, and the plan was for 61 homes in total for the Buffalo Range subdivision.
MFA was providing down payment assistance here as well, with HUD 184s coming from banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of Albuquerque. The project also received federal stimulus money and three grants from the New Mexico TIFF (Tribal Infrastructure Fund) program.
At the Mescalero Apache reservation in southern New Mexico, 30 green-built homes had been perched on the side of a mountain when Eric took me there in 2009 for the project dedication. The I-Sah’-Din’-Dii project used Low Income Housing Tax Credit money and tribal funds, HOME money and state agency housing trust money. (The LIHTC is a federal program administered by the state, in this case the MFA). MFA contributed $1 million to fund infrastructure.
In addition to scouting for pots of money, Eric has been a tireless motivator of interested parties and someone willing to be involved for the years (and sometimes years and years) that these projects take from inception to completion. He’s been cheerleader and mentor to a whole generation of tribal, nonprofit and private capital people willing to look at a remote patch of ground and see well-built and affordable houses rising up to help house their nations.
In data Eric shared with me a few years ago, MFA itself had contributed $47 million for tribal housing projects between 1993-2011, helping to finance a total of 776 homes at 17 of New Mexico’s 22 tribes. And that effort has gotten nothing but bigger since then. That’s something that’s not easy to do, but easy to be proud of.
UPDATED: Eric Schmieder died Sunday, August 7, 2016 from Leukemia.