Chapter 8: Homeownership Development: Planning to Drive Change

Planning for homeownership development takes time, a large financial investment, and the commitment of local leadership to support the process over many years. The benefits can change a community forever.

The way I see it, my job is to make houses bloom in the desert.
—ISAAC PEREZ, Executive Director, Pueblo of San Felipe Housing Authority

Homeownership development is a multifaceted process that can best be explained by breaking it down into components. Homeownership development is lengthy and requires collaboration and a commitment to stay with the program. The benefits for a community, however, are long- lasting and will help provide the housing security and stability lacking in many tribal communities.

This chapter focuses on issues related to housing development and addresses how a tribal or private developer can approach a project for optimal results. Housing development usually begins with an assessment of the community’s needs and resources and is then folded into an overall master plan. But first, tribal leadership should assess whether it has created an environment supportive of development, with appropriate mortgage lending and zoning laws and building codes in place to both build homes and protect investments.

A master plan is a forward-looking document that designs a community out of a large tract of land. The master plan can address not only homeownership sites but also future commercial, multifamily, and community facilities parcels such as schools, community buildings, recreational areas and playgrounds, walking paths, and ceremonial sites.  A long-term development plan addresses many of the community’s needs, incorporates site location and size, and provides a framework for organized development.

Information gathering for the Master Plan

  • Community’s homeownership potential – the right size, type, and pricing of the housing to be developed.
  • Location and size of the development
    • Sites close to amenities such as schools, grocery stores, medical facilities, and resources can attract other types of development, such as administrative buildings, commercial buildings, and multifamily dwelling units.
    • Sites that suit the size, environmental conditions, and topography of the land will make construction and development a success.
    • Site costs vary greatly due to availability of infrastructure (water, sewer, utilities) needs—“at the curb,” brought from an adjacent site, or new construction. Leapfrogging over existing land and extending infrastructure to remote sites is extremely expensive and not an effective use of resources.

Soils

The soil upon which the building is to be erected must be analyzed early in the process to determine whether a site is suitable for building. Depending on the area of the country, this may include excavation for basements or slab on grade construction (no basements), or houses that are elevated on blocks or a pier system where soil types may swell and contract, not allowing a sound foundation for construction.

  • An environmental assessment (phase 1) will help define whether any prior use of the site requires further investigation and/or soil/site remediation.  Former pasture land, crop land, and undisturbed sites normally are suitable for development. Former commercial sites may merit additional probing, requiring a phase 2 environmental assessment. Sites used for service stations, any industrial usage, or as a catchment area for mining tailings or industrial waste generally require further investigation.

Land Size and Infrastructure

Two of the most expensive budget items for a homeownership development, besides the actual cost of construction, are the cost of the land and infrastructure. Here we assume the use of trust land with a long-term lease.

Infrastructure is a large upfront cost. It includes water delivery, sewage lines, electric, gas, cable, and other power to a house; storm water drainage; and fire hydrants. Importantly, infrastructure includes broadband, wherever possible.

Because infrastructure is expensive, density affects the affordability of housing. Some potential homeowners may prefer low-density housing, with large lot sizes and fewer homes per acre. However, higher-density development, with more residences per acre or per mile of sewer and electricity, tends to minimize each home’s infrastructure cost and keep homes affordable. Tribal governments may plan for a mix of densities to accommodate different needs and preferences. In low- to moderate-priced developments, old rules of thumb called for four units per acre, after allowing for streets and other amenities. Many newer developments have gone to five houses per acre by incorporating smaller lot sizes with easy access to a neighborhood park. Maintenance of the lots becomes easier, with less lawn to mow, water, etc.  However, this is a community decision factoring in the availability of resources for land development.

Predevelopment

Resources for predevelopment of a site can be difficult but not impossible to find. Predevelopment work often is done by a professional service that lays out the design, grid, and development of the site. Here, the critical steps are hiring an engineer and preparing a preliminary engineering report (PER). What does a PER do?

  • Outlines the technical and financial needs of project.
  • Produces an Environmental Report (ER).
  • Describes project components.
  • Sketches schematics showing the general layout and location of the existing site conditions.
  • Conducts a feasibility analysis for the constructability of the project.
  • Defines the proposed method of construction (traditional methods of design/bid/build with sealed competitive bids are preferred).
  • Provides a current detailed construction cost estimate for each of the project components.
  • Sets out an overall estimated project schedule, including the number of months for each of the following design periods:
    • Obtain required permits.
    • Obtain any required easements or rights-of-way.
    • Solicit bids and award contracts.
    • Construction.

Along with the master plan, the PER becomes a key document and valuable tool for review by the lenders, engineer, architect, contractors, and others associated with the project.

Architect and Design

In most subdivisions and homeownership developments, the developer is responsible for acquiring the land, putting in all infrastructure, and selling individual lots, at a profit or sometimes “at cost” in order to start construction of individual homes. Development costs and profits are part of the sale price. A developer can “build to suit,” or build a home plan brought to them by a client. More often, a builder will have a portfolio of housing designs, with differing square footage sizes, materials, and roof lines with various prices.  

On trust land, this model may look different.

  • The developer may be the tribe or a related entity, or it could be a private developer.
  • The long-term benefits of the infrastructure remain with the land but for the benefit of the homeowner.
  • The financing may be bank loans, as well as funding from federal, state, or local resources.

The tribe must decide and define how the lots will be assigned or allocated in a reservation subdivision. If the lots are leasehold interests, the cost of developing the lots will not be dependent on the profits from the sale of the parcels. Rather, the development costs and profits, if any, will depend on available financial resources such as loans and grants for housing development.  

Infrastructure funding is available through HUD’s Indian Community Development Block Grant. Title VI of NAHASDA also allows a loan (95 percent guaranteed) to be used for infrastructure. In addition, the USDA Rural Development Agency’s water and waste water program is available for infrastructure development.

Scattered-site Development

Scattered-site development and the use of infill lots for homeownership also is worth exploring. This begins with an inventory of vacant lots or lots with buildings that may be removed due to age or deterioration in the near future. These lots, although often not large, may have access to water, sewer, and utilities based on prior use or having been in the path of previous development. Committing these parcels to homeownership will establish a program while a larger tract of land is being planned for multiple units.

Finally, individual parcels with acreage some distance from services may be considered for homeownership. These sites will require a well for water usage, a septic tank and drain field system for waste management, power to the site, a road or driveway to the site, and potential use of propane as a heating fuel source. All these factors add to the cost of a site and need to be factored into the house construction budget.  

Finally, tribes should consider providing a homeownership counselor to help potential homeowners navigate the development and construction process. This support will lead to better decisions and more project satisfaction for all parties.

A site must have the size, environmental conditions, and topography to make construction and development a success.