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Cherokee ramps up housing efforts

Kituwah LLC, the business arm for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has recently purchased several properties in downtown Waynesville — two buildings on Main Street that are currently home to the Jeweler’s Workbench and the Haywood County Arts Council (top) and properties on Boundary Street that contain Southern Concrete Materials. Holly Kays photos Kituwah LLC, the business arm for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has recently purchased several properties in downtown Waynesville — two buildings on Main Street that are currently home to the Jeweler’s Workbench and the Haywood County Arts Council (top) and properties on Boundary Street that contain Southern Concrete Materials. Holly Kays photos

In response to a deepening housing crisis  and a growing  casino enterprise in need of workers, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the LLCs it owns are moving forward with a slate of residential development projects that will result in more than 1,000 new housing units over the next decade — in both the Qualla Boundary and the surrounding region.

“The tribe has just really put a focus on housing, especially at the start of Chief (Richard) Sneed’s tenure as principal chief, and the funding has been made available as we need it, so we haven’t run into any issues as far as being able to fund our projects,” said EBCI Housing Secretary Edwin Taylor. “It’s an exciting time.”

Tribal government housing projects 

Currently, the tribe operates 160 market-rate rentals, which are running at 99 to 100% capacity, as well as 148 low-income units. With over 100 people on the waiting list for low-income housing and 150 on the waiting list for market-rate rentals, even more are needed. 

The tribe has finished its Road to Soco project on U.S. 19, half a mile from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino in the Painttown community, which now offers 84 three-bedroom and four-bedroom units. But Taylor’s department is in the process of preparing an adjacent 2.5-acre property for an additional housing project that would comprise 100-120 mixed-income units in a mixed-use development with retail space on the bottom floor. 

Also underway is a 32-unit project on Aquoni Road in the Yellowhill community, which will offer market-rate two- and three-bedroom rentals slated for completion no later than June 30. 

Over the coming years, the tribe’s housing development efforts will only accelerate, with multiple properties now under contract or in the planning phase. 

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A six-phase project currently in the pipeline on Camp Creek Road is expected to yield 454 units by the end of the 10-year buildout period, a mix of single-family homes, duplexes, quads and apartment complexes. The property, which covers 116 acres excluding green space, is not part of the Qualla Boundary and was permitted through Jackson County, though it’s located near tribal lands off of U.S. 441. The tribe plans to break ground in June. A smaller project in the Big Cove community would add at least 20 single-family homes on a property comprising about 6 acres, solidly within the Qualla Boundary. 

The tribe also has its eye on several other housing development projects but must first finalize sale of the properties in question. The EBCI is in the process of closing on a 16-acre property on the 441 corridor, a fee-simple purchase on county land, that it hopes to develop as a low-income tax credit project for single-family homes. Because the tribe will have to apply for variances from the county to complete the development, Taylor said it will be 18-24 months before work starts.  

About 250 housing units — duplexes, quads and apartments — could go in on the 345-acre Coopers Creek  tract in Swain County once the process to place that property into federal trust is complete. While the tribe already owns the property as a fee-simple purchase, it can’t start development until the fee-to-trust process is complete. However, the EBCI is working to develop construction plans. 

“We could see some movement going on down there in FY 23,” Taylor said. 

While Taylor has mostly been focused on housing in and around the Qualla Boundary, he is also working to close on a 17-acre piece of land in Graham County, about 2 miles outside Robbinsville city limits and adjacent to the EBCI daycare center. The tribe hopes to build low-income housing there through the low-income tax credit program. 

Currently, tribally owned low-income housing is open only to enrolled members of federally recognized Indian tribes. While market-rate rentals are not restricted to tribal members, applicants who are tribal members get priority. However, said Taylor, the tribe recognizes that the housing crisis extends beyond the Qualla Boundary; while the primary purpose is to house enrolled members, the EBCI hopes its projects will ameliorate the shortage in surrounding communities and address the workforce needs of its businesses. 

“We’re looking at, what’s the balance?” said Taylor. “Are we 70-30 tribal to non-enrolled? Or just, where’s the sweet spot so that we’re being good neighbors and good partners in development of the housing on the counties that surround us.”

Housing and commercial development from tribal LLCs 

Meanwhile, tribally owned LLCs are using the 2020 purchase  of modular home company Cardinal Homes to develop housing opportunities across the region. 

“We probably have somewhere near 80, 90 lots under development at some stage,” said Kituwah LLC CEO Mark Hubble. “They range from million-dollar-plus homes in Asheville to much more modest and affordable homes at the lower end of the scale.”

Developments with these more affordable homes are underway in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties. To create the developments, Kituwah Builders LLC buys the land, installs infrastructure like roads and sewers, and then divides the tract into individual lots. Homes are transported from the Cardinal Homes plant in Virginia and then installed on-site. Once complete, the homes and their associated lots are sold to the homeowner.  

The largest such development right now is located across U.S. 19 from Lake Junaluska and will consist of about 45 homes on 15.09 acres of land. Kituwah Builders also owns 7.84 acres off Old Clyde Road just west of Canton, also for residential development. In Jackson County, Kituwah Builders owns 2.4 acres in Whittier adjacent to Sequoyah National Golf Club and 1.12 acres on Webster Road near its intersection with North River Road, both undeveloped tracts. In Bryson City, Kituwah Builders owns 11 residential lots along Arlington Avenue that total 4.6 acres. 

Kituwah LLC is also acquiring property for reasons other than residential development. In downtown Waynesville, the company recently closed on two Main Street buildings — 80 and 86 North Main Street, which are currently home to The Jeweler’s Workbench and Haywood County Arts Council — as well as the property Southern Concrete Materials occupies on Boundary Street. 

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In the immediate future, nothing will change on those properties, Hubble said. Kituwah LLC plans to maintain leases with the companies that currently occupy its two Main Street buildings but will remodel the upper levels for a use that has yet to be determined. It will also continue leasing the Boundary Street property to Southern Concrete for as long as the company desires to remain in that location. Should the property become vacant, it will be redeveloped as a hotel or condo building.  

“There’s no timeline,” said Hubble when asked how long Southern Concrete will remain. “We’re completely flexible on that.”

In Swain County, Kituwah LLC has purchased Ela Campground, which it hopes to develop as an RV park, and another property along Ela Road known as the old Maytag property, which it plans to maintain as a culturally significant property. In Jackson County, a Kituwah sister company, Kituwah Global Government Group LLC, has purchased the old Pepsi plant  in Whittier. The building is currently being leased out for a variety of uses, including as storage for furniture and appliance packages offered by Kituwah Builders. 

An earlier version of this story referred to Kituwah Global Government Group as a subsidiary of Kituwah LLC. The two organizations are in fact sister companies.

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