Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) Hosts Listening Session on VA Native American Direct Home Loan Reform

Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) and the South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition held a listening session recently as part of the Senator’s efforts to reform the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Native American Direct Loan (NADL) program. In addition to participation from Senator Rounds, his staff, and Coalition members, the listening session featured testimonies about the NADL home loan process from several Native American veterans.

During the session, Senator Rounds told participants, “We need to fix the NADL program so it actually benefits our Native Americans in South Dakota.”

“Native veterans shouldn’t have to go to battle to get an NADL mortgage,” said Geri Opsal, Co-Chair of the Coalition’s Veteran’s Homeownership Committee and Tribal Veterans Service Officer for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. “They should have the same access to their VA benefit as any other veteran applying for a VA guarantee loan off the reservation.”

“We really appreciate Senators Rounds’ leadership on this issue,” said Tawney Brunsch, Executive Director of Lakota Funds. “During our discussions, you could tell he really understood how important it is for Native veterans to have ‘boots on the ground’ to help them through the mortgage lending process.”

With an average of only 20 NADL applications being approved nationwide each year, Senator Rounds has engaged the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee to explore solutions that would provide Native American veterans with meaningful access to the benefits they have earned. Those efforts included a request to the Government Accountability Office to conduct a thorough review of the NADL program, which will be a crucial step toward systemic change.


Coalition Members Discuss Native American Homeownership on Freddie Mac Podcast

During the Freddie Mac Home Starts Here podcast, James Cromartie from Freddie Mac (a Tiospaye Member) and Tawney Brunsch (Executive Committee member) discuss the realities of homeownership. They outline, not only the challenges, but also the exciting headway that is being made to increase homeownership opportunities in Native communities.

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Video by Senator Thune Describes Great Success of 502 Relending Pilot

During the 2020 OFN Virtual Conference, Senator John Thune (SD-R) shared with conference attendees how  the 502 Relending Pilot is creating homeownership opportunities in Indian Country.

Thank you Senator John Thune for championing the USDA 502 relending demonstration program with the Native CDFIs in South Dakota and for supporting the work of CDFIs nationwide. Watch the video below for a personal message from Senator Thune to Opportunity Finance Network virtual conference attendees!


A Veterans Day Celebration: Native American Veteran Becomes Lakota Federal Credit Union’s First Mortgage Client

With homeownership rates hitting a 12-year high despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Norman Rogers, a U.S. Navy veteran, is celebrating this major milestone alongside many others across the nation. Rogers is the first to close a mortgage loan from the Lakota Federal Credit Union, the only federally insured depository institution on the Pine Ridge Reservation – and also a Coalition member organization.

“The housing shortage is something that impacts so many people here on the Reservation. We believe that homeownership is a viable solution, and we are excited to officially launch our mortgage product to support more families in achieving their homeownership dreams,” said Shayna Ferguson, Branch Manager of the Lakota Federal Credit Union.

Rogers and his wife Eunice care for their 16-year-old grandson, and that was the primary motivating factor in pursuing homeownership after renting for 55 years.

“Paying rent for all those years, we could have owned three houses by now,” says Rogers. Even so, he is satisfied knowing that he is providing his family with a safe place to call home, even beyond his lifetime.

Many first-time homeowners on the Reservation are building assets that will be passed onto future generations, a strategy Tawney Brunsch, Board Chair of the Lakota Federal Credit Union and Executive Director of Lakota Funds, says is critical to breaking the cycle of poverty.

“Our approach to mortgage lending entails more than the immediate need of safe and affordable housing. We are also working on a longer-term strategy that will position our children and grandchildren to be better off financially,” says Brunsch.

Ferguson and Brunsch regularly collaborate to leverage each other’s programs and provide a more impactful experience for their clients. Rogers’ homeownership journey was no exception. Through their partnership and networks, Rogers was able to tap into over $20,000 in subsidies to improve the home’s energy efficiency and offset his mortgage. By working with Lakota Funds, Rogers completed a homebuyer education course and participated in matched savings programs to multiply his down payment. The Housing Assistance Council’s Affordable Housing for Rural Veterans initiative, which is supported by the Home Depot Foundation, provided funding for a new roof, windows, and doors on Rogers’ home, which have reduced his utility costs.

“The great thing about this is that Norman immediately had a substantial amount of equity built into his home,” says Brunsch. “For people on a fixed income, like many of our Reservation families, this provides more flexibility and options in how they handle financial emergencies, should they ever come up in the future.”

As Rogers reflects on his major life events – military service, a successful career in education, establishing schools, obtaining accreditation for Oglala Lakota College, sitting on several school boards – he comes back to a moment in 1956 when he was only one of seven Native American students to graduate Rapid City High School.

“I realized I had a lot more opportunity because I lived in Rapid City. Reservations do not have the same opportunities surrounding work and school as off reservation communities. I saw that back then and I thought, ‘I can make a difference.’ I enjoyed working with kids. Our schools had really low education levels and I fought for something better. I wanted to serve the community and the kids in the community,” he says.

More than a half century later, Rogers is still serving the community. He is paving the road to homeownership for others to follow.

“People like Norman are examples for what is truly possible. He may not know it, but he is inspiring his family members, neighbors, and even our community leaders to achieve more,” says Ferguson, “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this year’s Veteran’s Day.”


Coalition Members Partner to Deploy COVID-19 Housing Relief Funds

Three Native American nonprofit organizations – Four Bands Community Fund, Lakota Funds, and Mazaska Owecaso Otipi Financial – have been designated as partners in the SD CARES Housing Assistance Program (SDCHAP) to provide up to $1,500 in rental, mortgage, or utility assistance to families that have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The South Dakota Housing Development Authority (SDHDA) was awarded $10 million by the State of South Dakota to launch and administer SDCHAP.

“Knowing that low-income and minority communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic, we are grateful that the South Dakota Housing Development Authority has actively engaged Native American organizations to ensure funds are directed where they are needed most,” says Tawney Brunsch, Executive Director of Lakota Funds.

SDHDA opened the online SDCHAP application on October 22, 2020 and will be accepting applications until December 18, 2020, or sooner if funds are expended. To provide assistance with families that don’t have reliable internet access and to help process applications, SDHDA has partnered with a total of 11 organizations, just under a third of which are located on Indian reservations.

“Since COVID hit, we have seen financial burdens manifest in different ways. We can really help a lot of people with this program and are glad to be a part of it,” says Colleen Steele, Executive Director of Mazaska.

The SDCHAP application can be found at sdcareshousingassistance.com. Four Bands is assisting applicants in Dewey, Ziebach, Wallworth, Corson, Hughes, Stanley, Buffalo, and Brule Counties. Lakota Funds is supporting applicants in Oglala Lakota, Jackson and Bennett Counties. Mazaska is covering Oglala Lakota, Jackson, Bennett, Fall River, Pennington, Meade, Lawrence, Todd, and Custer Counties.

All three Native organizations and SDHDA are members of the South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition and have been working collaboratively in various capacities over the past several years to increase homeownership opportunities for Native Americans throughout the state.

“All of the program partners are dedicated to making their communities a better place, and this is an opportunity to preserve progress on so many different levels. There is power in partnerships,” says Lakota Vogel, Executive Director of Four Bands.


Coalition Members Showcase Successful Native Veterans Homeownership Models

South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition members are continuing to advocate for policies that increase rates of Native American veteran homeownership. Lakota Funds and Mazaska Owecaso Otipi Financial, both Native community development financial institutions (CDFIs) that serve the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, hosted a Reservation-wide tour for two staffers from U.S. Senator Mike Rounds’ (R-SD) office, Michael Bekaert, Director of In-State Military and Veterans Affairs, and George Cannizzaro, Veterans Affairs Fellow.

“We are so thankful to George and Mike for taking the time to visit with us and really get a true understanding for the environment we are working in, the challenges our Native veterans are facing when it comes to purchasing a home, and the success we’ve had with implementing new and innovative models to support our veterans in becoming homeowners,” says Tawney Brunsch, Executive Director of Lakota Funds and also a member of the Coalition’s Native Veterans Homeownership Committee.

The tour included meet and greets with Native veterans at their homes and highlighted various loan products they had utilized – including the Mazaska construction loan, the USDA 502, and the Veterans Affairs’ Native American Direct Loan (NADL) – challenges they encountered, and strategies implemented by service providers to support Native veterans as they pursue homeownership. One such strategy highlighted during the day’s luncheon was a newly developed guide to homeownership for Oglala Sioux veterans, created by Mazaska with funding from Enterprise Community Partners. The printed guide helps Native veterans on Pine Ridge navigate the homeownership process and includes several resources.

“Many of the veterans we work with are almost ready to give up because they’ve run into so many road blocks trying to buy a home. Some have been at it for years. What we have found is that relationships matter – not just with our local veterans but also with other lenders, the Tribe, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, and our many community partners. We serve as a liaison between the veteran and these agencies and resources to keep the process moving,” says Steph Provost, Loan Officer at Mazaska.

The tour follows several months of collaboration between the Coalition and Rounds’ office in an effort to streamline the NADL program. Most recently, in June, Rounds, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee (SVAC), along with SVAC Chairman Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-MT), called on the Government Accountability Office to review the NADL program. The senators requested the evaluation of the NADL program out of concern that it is not effectively serving Native American veterans. This request is a critical step towards programmatic improvement through legislative or other means.

Senator Rounds will also host a listening session this Thursday, September 3, 2020, for him to personally discuss reform strategies with Native veteran homebuyers and the Coalition members that support them.

“Homeownership on tribal lands can be a complex process, but we are continuing to chip away at the barriers to ensure that our veterans are compensated for the sacrifices they have made. It is exciting to see progress and the level of congressional support we have,” says Brunsch.


South Dakota Congressional Delegation Urges USDA to Continue Home Loan Program on Tribal Land

Three members of the United States Congress – Senator John Thune (R-SD), Senator Michael Rounds (R-SD), and Representative Dusty Johnson (D-SD) – urged U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue to allocate additional funding to continue the 502 Relending Home Loan Program on tribal land in South Dakota.

Through this program, USDA Rural Development collaborated with two Native community development financial institutions (CDFIs) to increase access to Section 502 Direct Home Loans in Indian Country. The program was highly successful, deploying nearly $2 million in mortgage loans on two South Dakota Indian reservations in less than a year – about three times the amount deployed in the previous decade. The two Native CDFIs participating in the program – Four Bands Community Fund on the Cheyenne River Reservation and Mazaska Owecaso Otipi Financial on the Pine Ridge Reservation – estimate a growing pipeline of more than $3 million for Section 502 Direct Home Loans.

“As demand for homeownership strengthens amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the continuation of the pilot program would help more tribal families escape overcrowded housing situations and achieve their goals of homeownership,” said Sharon Vogel, executive director of the Cheyenne River Housing Authority and co-chair of the South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition’s policy committee.

“We really appreciate Senator Thune’s leadership and the ongoing support from our South Dakota congressional delegation,” added J.C. Crawford, Chief Executive Manager of CBJ Producers, LLC and co-chair of the Coalition’s policy committee. “They understand that through this partnership with USDA, Native CDFIs are in the best place to get affordable 502 mortgage capital into tribal communities. Lakota Vogel at Four Bands, Colleen Steele at Mazaska and their lending teams are doing great work on the frontlines assisting their clients to navigate the homeownership process on trust land.”

A copy of the letter from the South Dakota congressional delegation can be viewed here:

Read Letter

Senator Rounds Updates Coalition about Progress Toward Increasing Access to Mortgages for Native American Veterans

Today, Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) provided an update letter to the South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition on his reformation efforts of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Native American Direct Loan (NADL) program. Although the NADL program is intended to provide mortgage financing for Native American veterans living in reservation communities, levels of participation have historically been very low.

Earlier this month, Rounds, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee (SVAC), along with SVAC Chairman Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-MT), called on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review the NADL program. The Senators requested the evaluation of the NADL program out of concern that it is not effectively serving Native American veterans. This request is a critical step towards programmatic improvements through legislative or other means.

“It’s been a long-time coming but thanks to Senator Rounds’ leadership, we are finally starting to see some progress with reforming the VA’s Native American Direct Loan program,” says Robert Dunsmore, Tribal Veteran Service Officer for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and also the Co-Chair of the South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition’s Native Veterans Homeownership Committee.

Over the past several months, Rounds and his staff have met with VA officials and several tribal communities to gain a thorough understanding of the challenges within the NADL program. During this time, they have also worked collaboratively with the South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition’s Native Veterans Homeownership Committee to explore potential solutions that would result in higher rates of homeownership for Native American veterans.

“We appreciate the time Senator Rounds and his staff have taken to come here to the Lake Traverse Reservation to see the homes we have built and hear about our concerns. Our veterans deserve to be homeowners, especially after serving our country in higher numbers than any other ethnic group in America,” says Geri Opsal, Tribal Veteran Service Officer for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and also Co-Chair of the South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition’s Native Veterans Homeownership Committee.

Click below to download and read the letter from Senator Rounds to the South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition.

Read Letter

Now Accepting Applications from Coalition Member Organizations for Mortgage and Small Business Relief

At the beginning of June, we launched the Native Homeownership Protection Plan, a program designed to channel financial support through our member organizations to homeowners and small businesses that are facing challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Applications are now open and will continue to be accepted until funds are exhausted!

Program Guidelines

•  Coalition member organizations that are current on their membership dues can refer their clients to receive Native Homeownership Protection Plan funds. If you are not sure if you are current on your dues, please contact Kelsie Whiting at kwhiting@lakotafunds.org. If you are not a member, but would like to become one, please visit www.sdnativehomeownershipcoalition.org/joinus to fill out our online membership application.

•  Coalition member organizations can refer clients to apply for funds if they: 1)are a Native homeowner or small business owner; and 2) have lost business revenue or have experienced a reduction or loss of income because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

•  Mortgage relief funds can be used for a mortgage payment, utilities payment, or housing related expenses (e.g., emergency repairs).

•  Small business assistance funds can be used for business rent or utilities, operating expenses, salaries, or COVID-related expenses.

How to Access Funds

Download and complete the simple two-part application. Part 1 is completed by the member organization and Part 2 by the homeowner or small business. Submit the completed application to the appropriate Native CDFI.

Download Application

Thank You!

We’d like to thank Four Bands Community Fund, Lakota Funds, and Mazaska Owecaso Otipi Financial for helping us administer these funds. And, we’d like to express our appreciation to an anonymous donor, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, South Dakota Community Foundation, and Wells Fargo for their generous support for the Native Homeownership Protection Plan.


Debra Phelps Becomes 5th Homeowner in Thunder Valley Regenerative Community

Although many things came to a halt with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, some aspects of life carried on. After nearly a year of hard work and dedication, Debra Phelps, a Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribal member and a Marine Corps veteran, became a first-time homeowner at the end of March, when she purchased a 3-bedroom, 1 ½ bath home in the Thunder Valley Regenerative Community on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. 

Although she hadn’t thought of it yet, Debra began preparing for homeownership a year before she actually began the mortgage process. As an employee of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (TVCDC), she was required to complete financial literacy classes.

“I’m up there in age, so I thought I knew everything about financials. I’m glad we had to do it, though. It makes you think about things you hadn’t before,” says Debra.

That was a turning point for her. She took some steps to increase her credit score, and also started talking to her three grown children about credit. Most importantly, she began transforming her financial habits. 

“I started paying attention to my spending and asking myself at the cash register if this was a need or a want,” she explains. 

As time went on, Debra began thinking about aging and her future. “I didn’t want to put the burden on my kids, so that is how I started thinking about homeownership.” 

Debra began working with her colleagues, Ana Garibaldi and Star Means who are part of the Housing and Homeownership Initiative at TVCDC, to become mortgage-ready, figure out the best-fit loan product, and identify potential subsidies. Ana and Star are also active participants on the South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition’s Homebuyer Readiness Committee and Native Veterans Homeownership Committee. Debra says the most challenging thing along the way was the paperwork. 

“There is a lot to know – what you are reading, what it really means. It is a scary process if you don’t know what you are doing, but Ana and Star were there to help me through it,” says Debra. 

TVCDC leveraged partnerships with Oglala Sioux Lakota Housing and the South Dakota Housing Development Authority to help Debra secure over $50,000 in subsidies to offset loan processing fees and construction costs. Ana from TVCDC explains that the subsidies are a critical piece to making homeownership possible for many people, especially because construction costs in a rural area average about 20% higher than in urban areas.  

“We really appreciate our partners, because the subsidies are key to making homeownership affordable on the Pine Ridge Reservation. They help keep monthly mortgage, property tax, and insurance payments within a reasonable range for our homeowners,” says Ana. 

Debra says the most rewarding part of her homeownership journey was getting approved for her VA Home Loan, which was through First National Bank in Rapid City.

“I always wanted to own my own home, but I never thought I would or could. Just being able to qualify was good,” she says. 

Debra loves her new home, especially the high ceilings on the first floor, natural light, and mud room that is really great for her two dogs. She is still getting used to the idea of being a homeowner, though.

“Sometimes when I turn on the TV, I worry about being too loud. I’ve lived in apartments my whole life, and I forget that I’m in my own home and I can be as loud as I want,” she laughs. 

Debra looks forward to helping her children become homeowners when they are ready. In the meantime, she continues to provide guidance on credit and spending. 

“This was another thing I was able to experience before them, so I can help them with it when they go through it,” she says.