Can Mobile Homes Still Roll West

    SPRING LAKE — Rez Rolling Homes Inc. passed the century mark, having now delivered more than 100 used mobile homes to impoverished Indians of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

    The company is the brainchild of Jim Bolthouse, an Ottawa County real estate developer, who fostered the project nearly three years ago.

    Along the way, he said, some America Indians who’ve grown up in abject circumstances now are learning that business enterprise is not the “white man’s way,” but the means to provide for a family and become personally independent.

    He said the project has been receiving considerable investment support from West Michigan.

    Bolthouse praised John Hoekstra, of Hoekstra Equipment Co. in Grand Rapids, for investing money and equipment. The equipment includes small-scale school buses that Rez Rolling Homes employs as repair and escort vehicles.

    “If it hadn’t been for Jim, we would have folded long ago,” Bolthouse said.

    He said that’s also true of an anonymous Holland man who invested $50,000 in the project, and of Jim and Kathie O’Dette, owners of Anderson and Associates, of Grand Rapids. Among other things, the O’Dettes helped finance the transportation of seven homes to South Dakota.

    But if local businesses have helped, Bolthouse bitterly said that an alphabet soup of federal agencies created to help house Indians are cold-shouldering the project.

    Bolthouse said Rez Rolling Homes is a small for-profit trucking company working with a small not-for-profit lending firm through which Indian families purchase the homes and fund transportation on mortgage-like terms.

    He said the nonprofit is a donor-directed fund that also hopes to incubate small manufacturing companies. The firms would use salvaged mobile home steel, wheels and axles to fabricate sporting and industrial equipment trailers.

    Rez Rolling Homes is 51 percent owned by members of the Oglala Lakota tribe of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, which is where all the homes are delivered. It and Rez Financial Lending Fund use the word “Rez” as derived from Indians’ verbal shorthand for the word “reservation.”

    Bolthouse said the fund needs new investors because house payments for mobile homes have yet to offset the project’s start-up outlays. And he has no faith that any government entity will help.

    He said no small business, minority assistance, rural development or Indian affairs grant program to date has approved grants or government loans for either the loan fund or the trucking company, though he claims both firms accomplish the federal programs’ professed missions.

    “They have all these billions and billions of dollars out there for housing for the poor, to create jobs for Indians, for minority business start-ups — funds earmarked to help Indians start up businesses. But every year these agencies go back to Congress for more money because the Indians still have no jobs.

    “The bureaucracy is unbelievable,” he added. “We got professional grant writers. We followed all the steps, but they keep changing the steps.”

    He said Grand Haven Bank has offered a temporary line of credit to keep Rez rolling. But he added that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has failed to fax a single one-page application to the bank so the line of credit could be BIA-approved.

    “It took four weeks to get a hold of the guy who was supposed to send the form to the bank,” Bolthouse said. “He told us the project sounded great; he’d send the form that day.

    “That was in April and it still hasn’t happened. And he won’t return our calls.”

    Bolthouse fears for the project, which he said has operated on a shoestring since November 1999. That’s when his son, a trucker, told him of the conditions in which most reservation residents live. Bolthouse said unemployment on the reservation runs in the 90th percentile, the few jobs being in government health clinics and schools.

    Bolthouse said the average annual family income on the reservation runs about $3,500 and many families live in shacks and abandoned cars.

    The reservation’s need for decent, cheap shelter offered a solution to a West Michigan market glutted with outdated mobile homes. Bolthouse said area mobile home parks were desperate to get rid of older homes, but the press of EPA regulations kept landfills from accepting them.

    Bolthouse’s notion was to haul the homes to South Dakota where families could buy them. In cases where the homes were too dilapidated for habitation, he envisioned tribal businesses scrapping them, saving appliances and usable parts, such as window frames, for use in otherwise serviceable homes, while recycling steel and axles for fabrication.

    Bolthouse, a member of the two corporations’ boards, said transportation alone has generated new skills for tribe members: CDL drivers, prep workers for transport, placement and set-up workers, maintenance workers and administrative personnel.

    “They’ve been given a fair chance to be responsible,” he said of the workers, “and responsible people produce.” He also said the lending fund furnishes credit to families unable to get loans of any kind because they possess neither collateral, nor credit history or meaningful income.

    He said Rez Rolling Homes delivers, sells and sets up a furnished mobile home with utilities for an average of $5,000. The lending fund, administered by a South Dakota bank, has helped families buy the homes on a five-year, mortgage-style contract.

    “They simply make a small down payment and monthly payments scaled to their income,” Bolthouse said. “That’s about all they can do.

    “I overheard one new homeowner say, ‘I am 50 years old, and this is the first opportunity that I have had to own my own home.’”

    Bolthouse said donors can earmark contributions to the lending fund for use in mobile home loans or in business loans. He said the fund also accepts donated mobile homes. Any of the donations is deductible as a 503(c) contribution.

    Bolthouse said that mobile home dealer associations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Colorado have begun donating homes to the project. “This project solves a problem for them, too,” he said.

    “Word out west has spread,” he added, “and many other reservations have asked for a similar program to provide affordable homes and jobs, vocational training and economic independence.”         

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