Tribal housing moves forward

An affordable housing project by Yakama Nation Housing Authority dubbed Wishxum is planned for property south of Third Avenue, seen here at right, and east of Dallesport Road, at center. The property extends to the tracks of the BNSF Railroad.

Much of a century has passed since the federal government promised to replace tribal housing lost when dams inundated fishing villages along the Columbia River.

Now, two separate housing projects seeking to fulfill that promise are both making headway.

Further along is a proposed 66-home development in Dallesport, dubbed Wishxum (pronounced Wish-kum) Village.

It is an affordable housing project by the Yakama Nation Housing Authority, which held a groundbreaking ceremony in late October. The development would go on 45 acres near the river, off the intersection of Third Avenue and Dallesport Avenue.

The housing authority has finished environmental and cultural studies — a surprise was finding the famed Eel Trail that tribal members once used to go from the river to the Simcoe mountains by Mt. Adams — and is preparing to apply to Klickitat County for needed permits, an official said.

Moving more slowly is a planning process by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had recently concluded after researching its own archives that it had not fulfilled a long-ago promise to replace inundated tribal housing.

The Portland District of the Army Corps first got $1.37 million in 2016 to begin planning work that included conducting baseline environmental surveys and completing cultural resource surveys at three possible sites — at Corps-owned Spearfish and Horsethief lakes, and at privately-owned land near Wishram.

The Portland District recently received another $1.8 million to finish the Village Development Plan, said Corps spokeswoman Sarah Bennett.

The reports now need to be compiled and a broader assessment on the impacts of building on each site made, including the actions the Corps would need to take, Bennett said.

In addition to further environmental and cultural impact analysis, there will be a public involvement process and a socioeconomic analysis. That would look at whether there are adequate services, from fire service to water supply, to support new development, she said.

The hope is the $1.8 million will complete the planning phase of the project, Bennett said.

“The ultimate size and number of units accommodated by the Village Development Plan is still to be determined along with the tribes and the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” she said.

The Yakama’s Wishxum Village will dedicate six homes to veterans, and 30-40 houses to the homeless, according to an email from Ted Strong, executive director of the Yakama housing authority, announcing the groundbreaking.

“The Yakama people have been waiting for generations for the federal government to make good on its promise to provide replacement housing along the Columbia River for tribal members whose home sites were inundated by the main stem dams,” Strong wrote. “Yakama Nation Housing Authority moved forward to address a large need in a small way.”

Bill Morris sits on the Dallesport Community Council and heads “Save Dallesport WA.,” which he described as a grassroots community group that is opposed to the current Yakama housing plan.

Morris said the Yakamas are “not in a position, nor have they ever been, to do underwater housing replacement.”

He said they were “interfering with U.S. federal contracts and agreements because underwater housing replacement is part of U.S. federally sanctioned projects. Everyone in the United States needs to pitch in to replace that housing.”

Underwater housing replacement is replacing housing flooded by dams, he said.

He said that “there is a full understanding that there is a homelessness crisis within the tribes regionally,” but putting a development at Dallesport was “not the way to go” because it would take 40 acres off the tax rolls.

Yakama Tribal Chairman JoDe Goudy could not be reached to respond to Morris’s comments.

The Wishxum Village project by the Yakamas calls for single-family homes, while the Corps project envisions a mix of single-family and multi-family housing.

An environmental analysis concluded no Environmental Impact Statement was required for the Wishxum Village project, said Debra Whitefoot, a housing enforcement specialist for the Yakama Nation Housing Authority.

The homes will have from two to four bedrooms, and will be about 1,200 square feet on average, Whitefoot said.

Funding for the project comes through a state program for low income housing that sells tax credits to investors in exchange for upfront funding. The project has generated about $10 million through selling tax credits.

“What investors are purchasing is a tax write off for themselves, so it’s not the tribe or developer that receives the tax benefit, it’s the investor,” said Margaret Graham, communications manager with the Washington State Housing Finance Commission.

The tax credits do not fund the full cost of the project, she said. The Wishxum Village is actually two tax credit projects, and each costs about $6 million, she said.

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