For many Native Americans, getting a home loan must sometimes seem as remote as hitting the jackpot at the casino.
In fact, with government and traditional home loan programs struggling to get off the ground, the cash-rich casinos run by many of the reservations are beginning to take on a key role in meeting the population's housing needs.
"Gaming can be for some tribes an important part of an overall financial strategy," said Christopher D. Boesen, executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council.
In New Mexico, 11 tribes operate casinos, and their access to capital is beginning to make them into quasi-banks. The capital they raise has helped tribes invest in land, social initiatives, and housing.
The Isleta Gaming Palace and 27-hole Isleta Eagle golf course at this pueblo outside Albuquerque is a case in point.
Inside the casino, NationsBank ATMs dish out cash to gamblers as a cacophony of blips, bleeps, and electronic songs emanate from slot machines and virtual card games with names like "Red, White, and Blue," and "Winning Touch."
Behind the glitz, the tribe is leveraging gaming funds "in a very imaginative way," said Carlos D. Lopez, executive director for the Isleta Pueblo Housing Authority.
Using $6.1 million of casino revenue, the tribe built a 52-unit subdivision. The Housing Authority bought the homes from the tribe using Department of Housing and Urban Development funds, and the homes are now leased to low-income families.
Isleta's tribal council has said that it will invest up to $10 million in housing with funds raised primarily from gaming, Mr. Lopez said.
The authority's immediate plans include 75 more homes in 1999 and 2000, using up to $3 million of tribal money, in combination with up to $3 million in loans from First Security Bank of New Mexico, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas, and other financial institutions, Mr. Lopez said.
Other participants in the program include the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority and the Department of Agriculture's Rural Housing Service. Charter Bank and Fannie Mae will provide construction financing.
"Gaming has opened a lot of doors for tribes to be able to do long-term planning for housing that will impact on people's lives," Mr. Lopez said. "Without the funds, the banks would not have participated. It was the money that we leveraged that really made them interested."
Gaming has provided tribes with a sense of financial security that was lacking in their relationships with banks. With gaming, "we know we can get things done," he said.
The early successes of the casinos stand in contrast to other, more traditional efforts.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, and the Agriculture Department's Rural Housing Service all are active on reservations. But lenders and borrowers alike say they are frustrated by the bureaucracy their programs sometimes entail.
The two most widely used loans in Indian country are HUS's FHA mortgage insurance program and the HUD Indian loan guarantee program, or section 184 loan.
The FHA section 248 program insures loans for up to 100% of the unpaid principal and interest. Loans are offered at fixed or adjustable rates for up to 30 years and can be refinanced.
The HUD section 184 loan does not allow for refinances. The government guarantees these loans for up to 100% of the unpaid principal and interest, and makes loans available at fixed market rates with a maximum of 30 years.
To date, HUD has guaranteed 444 of its section 184 loans with principal balances at the time of guarantee of $44.9 million. The vast majority, 333, were done on fee-simple land. Only 100 of these loans were done on tribal trust land, 11 on allotted land. The FHA insured seven loans in 1998 and 18 in 1997 on trust lands.
"We're taking a hard look at the government programs," to see if the programs meet the needs of Native Americans with a range of incomes living on different types of land-status in Indian country," said Jacqueline L. Johnson, deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Native American Programs at HUD.
Obtaining funding for homebuyer counseling programs and for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to redo its title system are some of the bigger challenges the federal government is taking on, she said.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, part of the Department of the Interior, has a backlog that would take more than 113 staff years to eliminate at a cost of more than $8 million, according to a 1998 report by the General Accounting Office. And the backlog is growing.
Government loan programs will ultimately stimulate a private market, Ms. Johnson said, noting: "Eventually the conventional lending will follow. Banks will become more comfortable."
But tribes are not counting on banks or the government to make much of a dent in the housing shortage on reservations in the near future.
Acoma is one of 11 tribes in New Mexico that has not had any mortgage loans made on its reservation.
But Raymond J. Concho, the executive director of the Pueblo of Acoma Housing Authority, has reason to hope this will change for the pueblo's 4,500 tribal members, some of whom live in Sky City-a cluster of close to 400 traditional pueblos 367 feet above a valley floor atop a mesa.
At the entrance to the pueblo at the highway turnoff stands a tall sign advertising Sky City Casino. The tribe's No. 1 source of revenue used to be tourists who would buy pottery, fresh bread, and other Native American items while visiting the traditional pueblo homes.
But the casino has overtaken the novelty trade, and it is beginning to make an impact in the financial life of the community.
One positive is that "it has educated the tribe about managing money," Mr. Boesen said. Gaming also provides some good jobs that can help to keep talented members of the tribe working on the reservation, he added.
The tribe has not yet granted its approval for mortgage lending, because leaders are considering the "implications of evictions and how it applies to the land assignments," Mr. Concho said.
But the tribe's housing needs are vast: It must build 800 units in the next 20 years, he said.
The tribe was one of the first in New Mexico to operate a casino. It netted about $24 million in 1998, based on the $3 million the tribe paid to the state in fees for its casino, Mr. Concho said.
The casino revenue helped the tribe buy 100,000 acres at the south end of the pueblo two years ago for $7 million. That tract was added to the 387,639 acres, or 604 square miles, of the original reservation, said Derek Valdo, a housing development specialist with the tribe's Housing Authority.
Like the Isleta, the Acoma tribe has acted as a developer. It used gaming revenues recently to finish building 30 homes for the tribe's mutual help and low- rent housing programs. Ultimately, the Pueblo of Acoma Housing Authority bought the homes, using HUD funds, Mr. Valdo said.
And Mr. Concho, who has requested $1 million from the tribe's casino profits to be used for affordable housing assistance, still dreams of building a second Sky City - this time with home loans.