Meet David Bland, chairman of Travois, Inc., a Kansas City, Mo.-based firm that specializes in assisting Native Americans to build affordable housing.
The company has helped its tribal clients build or rehabilitate more than 3,500 houses and has brought more than $350 million in private equity to Indian Country.
In 2007, a Travois company was awarded a $30 million allocation of New Markets Tax Credits, which it has dedicated to projects benefiting Native Americans.
Bland was named a Champion of Affordable Housing by the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency in 2005.
Q: How did you get started working with Native Americans?
A: Prior to forming Travois, Inc., I was the manager of community affairs for the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, and my job was to bring access to capital and banking services to the minority communities of the 9th Federal Reserve District. That meant I had to learn about Indian Country, including the laws and customs of many different tribal nations. As a part of that effort, I learned that banking and access to capital was very important, but the housing crisis on Indian reservations was of paramount concern. Since I had always been a housing person before coming to the Federal Reserve Bank, I had a strong interest and set of skills that I thought could help the situation.
Q: Give us a fact or statistic about Native Americans and housing to think about.
A: Tribal people are more than six times more likely to live in overcrowded or physically inadequate conditions than are Americans in general: 40 percent of native people compared to 6 percent of all Americans.
Native Americans also have the highest rate of poverty in the nation at 25.9 percent. The poverty rate for African Americans is 22.1 percent, 10.8 percent for Asian Pacific Islanders, and 21.2 percent for Hispanics.
Q: Tell us a little about a housing project that you are currently helping to develop.
A: The first project on tribal land ever to be approved by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs is the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Homes I project. It consists of 30 duplex buildings (60 units). Families currently on the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Housing Department's waiting list are the targeted population, which includes tribal members, descendents of tribal members, members of other tribes, and the general public. The project includes 33 two-bedroom units, 24 three-bedroom units, and three four-bedroom units. All of the two-bedroom units and twelve of the three-bedroom units will be handicap accessible. The project also includes a community service facility that will offer a meeting/gathering area for residents, as well as have a police substation that will provide on-site security for the community. There will also be a park with playground equipment and picnic and activity/play areas. This park will be in addition to an existing multi-purpose Recreation and Wellness Center owned and operated by the Pueblo that is less than 1,000 feet from the project site. The Recreation and Wellness Center is available to all tribal members free of charge and includes meeting rooms, a swimming pool, a basketball court, a racquetball court, a tennis court, a sand volleyball court, a library, a multi-media room, a fitness center, and various other community amenities.
Q: Have there been any recent rule changes or new programs that are making it easier to develop on tribal land?
A: There have been two recent changes that had a positive impact in Indian Country. First, Sec. 42 clarified that federal funds through the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act could be used to subsidize low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) units without a reduction in basis. Second, giving states the latitude to designate areas eligible for the 30 percent boost for difficult-to-develop areas took some of the uncertainty away from our projects. Too often census tracts overlap non-Indian areas, and very low-income communities on reservations are inexplicably not within qualified census tracts and therefore not eligible for the boost. This at least gives us a fighting chance to convince the states that tribal areas desperately need that boost in credit allocation.
Q: Times are tough for the industry. How is Travois doing, and have you made any recent moves at the firm that others can learn from?
A: Because we have effectively a 90 percent market share of LIHTC projects in Indian Country, we are doing quite well. Nonetheless, we are doing two things that will help us weather the current economic storm. First, we are consolidating our offices from Montana, Virginia, and Florida into our Kansas City office. That will lower our operating costs in the long run. Secondly, and more important, we are working to expand our pool of potential investors. Working with Raymond James Tax Credit Funds, we are trying to reach out to smaller community banks to show them that investing in LIHTCs can be just as beneficial to them as it is to the big banks like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and the other national, regional, and super regional banks.
Q: Travois was awarded a $30 million New Markets Tax Credit allocation in 2007. How are you using that money?
A: We have successfully deployed all $30 million into some pretty exciting projects. On the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, we financed two new electric substations for $6.4 million. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) acted as both the project sponsor and leverage lender for the transaction. The substations will supply electricity to the villages of Cudeii and Shiprock and will double the capacity of NTUA to deliver electricity to homes in those areas. The project will also result in no less than $41 million worth of new buildings on the reservation.
We also deployed $6.3 million for the LEED-certified Hotel Andaluz in Albuquerque, formerly known as the La Posada Hotel. Our NMTC investor on both this and the NTUA project was U.S. Bank. The Hotel Andaluz is located in an economically distressed neighborhood in Albuquerque – one of the five largest urban Indian communities in America. The hotel developer has agreed to a minimum of 20 percent of its staff positions to be filled by Native Americans for the life of the investment.
Finally, we made a $17.3 million investment in a new salmon processing plant built by the Coastal Villages Region Fund (CVRF) in Platinum, Alaska. CVRF is a nonprofit group of villages whose main economic activity is commercial fishing. The new plant in Platinum—an Alaskan Native village—will break a processing bottleneck that has kept regional fishermen from realizing their potential income for years. The benefits of this new plant will include 669 permanent jobs, 210 construction jobs, and will support a network of 569 fishermen.
Q: Has the company become a family business?
A: Indeed, we are a family business. Currently 14 of our 24 employees are related to either the chairman or president of the company. It makes for sort of boring family get-togethers, but boy, do we get a lot of work done.
Q: Favorite fictional character?
A: Wile E. Coyote. He is at his essence a grand optimist. Even though he never quite gets the roadrunner, he never gives up. He may be chagrinned at the open chasm he is about to fall into, his ears may drop, and his eyes may water, but after he hits bottom (which we never actually see in close-up, thank goodness), he dusts himself off, finds another Acme device to help him out, and he begins his pursuit all over again. I know of no other character in fiction that is quite as persistent and ambitious as old Wile E. Of course, his intelligence might be in question, but he is a lot like me. I am not the smartest guy in the room, but there aren't many as persistent.
Q: Most treasured possession?
A: My most treasured possession is a cowboy hat I bought in Austin, Texas, 30 years ago this month. As it turns out I bought that hat to try to impress a woman, on our first date, who I ultimately convinced to marry me. I don't know if the hat had anything to do with it, but I take no chances. I am keeping that hat.
Q: Life is like affordable housing because”¦?
A: ”¦once you think you have it figured out something or somebody comes along to muck it all up.
Q: Besides the usual work papers, what's in your office?
A: A saddle; clocks showing the time in the three other time zones I am not in; three framed photographs taken by Edward Sheriff Curtis showing Indian ponies pulling a travois; an 1893 map of Indian reservations compiled for D. M. Browning, the commissioner of Indian Affairs at the time; photographs of my wife and two children; and two ceremonial face masks from Benin, West Africa.
A: If you were hosting a dinner party and could invite anyone, who would be on the guest list?
A: Barack and Michelle Obama, Jon Stewart, Peyton Manning, Susan Sarandon, Janet Napolitano, and Wolfgang Puck (but only if he does the cooking).
Q: Your work takes you to many places. What do you like to do when you visit a new community?
A: My work takes me to some of the most stunningly beautiful places in the U.S. Since I am basically an introvert, I always try to get a permit to hike on the reservations, depending on the time of year. (I generally don't hike on the Standing Rock reservation in the winter, where it can be 50 or 60 below zero on a standard winter day.) I have been lucky enough to visit the ruins of Kinishba, an Anasazi cultural site dating from the 12th century on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, to hike to Havasupai Falls at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and to the top of Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, west of the Blackfeet Reservation, and in the Badlands of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. These places and others on reservations in the U.S. are spiritually and culturally important places, and I am grateful that I have been allowed to spend time there.
Q: What's next for you? What's next for Travois?
A: I will likely be spending a lot more time raising capital for our projects. In the past it was always too much money chasing too few projects. Now it is the reverse, and I must help fill the gap somehow. As for Travois, we are looking at alternative energy production on Indian reservations and how we can help, either through our New Markets subsidiary or in other ways. It has been said that North and South Dakota are the Saudi Arabia of wind. The tribal lands in those two states alone have enormous potential for the development of wind energy. We are also keenly interested in helping to improve health care on reservations. Diabetes is epidemic on reservations, and respiratory diseases that are compounded by overcrowding are rampant on tribal lands. We are a persistent company, and we are patient, so we keep plugging away, and I am confident that someday there will be Travois alternative energy and Travois health care initiatives to help fuel our little company.