Chief Ron LaFrance, left, signs a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs allowing Akwesasne’s servicemen and women to get direct home loans from the government. At his right is Mike Freuh of the DAV Loan Guaranty Office.
By ANDY GARDNER
AKWESASNE -- Veterans here are now eligible to get low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs direct home loans program now the that tribe has signed a memorandum of understanding with the DAV.
“It’s an opportunity for those who have served this country with honor, dignity, and pride,” Chief Ron LaFrance told a crowd of about 50, later adding “It’s just a very historic day – our veterans have been forgotten everywhere else but here in Akwesasne.”
The program was instituted in 1944 during World War II so returning vets can borrow to buy or improve a home at low, fixed interest and with no down payment. It was denied to veterans living on Indian reservations until 1992. That year, legislation opened the program to Indian country, but a tribe’s members can only get in on it if their government signs a deal with the U.S.
Even with veterans’ programs, many Native veterans have still traversed long, hard roads to homeownership after serving their country. Lenders of all varieties are reluctant at best to offer loans to Native Americans. They have little or no options for recovering a loan in the event of foreclosure or default if it’s on a reservation.
“It’s a big problem for everybody. It’s all about the status of the land and their reluctance to loan money,” LaFrance said.
Bonnie Stewart of the Franklin County Veterans’ Services Agency said one of the worst parts of her job is having to tell Akwesasne veterans that there is little she can do to help them get a federal home loan.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.
“Perhaps the cruelest cut for the St. Regis vet would be the inability to acquire a VA loan to get a home,” Tribal Court Chief Judge Peter Herne said in a speech. “This meant there would be no housing boom in Akwesasne, materials and labor would not be needed, and suburbia would miss Akwesasne irrespective of how many served.”
Barney Rourke, a former U.S. Marine, said he was unable to get a home loan after returning home from World War II in 1945.
“They (lenders) wouldn’t even look at you,” he said. “There was no way … if I was living outside the reservation it would have worked, but no way on the reservation.
“I had to work to buy a house and it took time,” he said.
Rourke was part of the 1st Marines who accepted one of the final Japanese surrenders of about 500,000 troops on Oct. 15, 1945 in Tientsin, China. His squad participated in the long and bloody Battle of Okinawa and was part of a force preparing for a mainland invasion of Japan. That was dashed with Emperor Hirohito’s announcement of Japanese surrender on Aug. 14, 1945, following atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki days earlier.
Rourke said he is skeptical of the government program and will be happy about it when he sees results rather than talk.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “Seeing is believing.”
His daughter, Sandra Rourke said she hopes her father, who requires a wheelchair, can get past his doubts and use the program to improve his home.
LaFrance noted that the tribe has been working for several years to bring the DAV program to Akwesasne and credited Retha Herne, Cecilia Cooke, and former chief Randy Hart for their efforts.
Five tribes in the eastern U.S. have a memorandum with Washington D.C. to get their veterans into the loan program, but none have taken advantage, according to LaFrance.
“Akwesasne will be the first,” he told the crowd.