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Pueblo project focuses on historic plaza

The adobe home that has been passed down on the mother’s side of Thanay Binford’s family for several generations sits on the outskirts of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo’s historic plaza area.

But the 41-year-old resident, who moved back to his childhood community last year and is now project manager for the Housing Authority, says the one-story adobe home down the road from St. John the Baptist Catholic Church is no one’s primary residence, but rather a central hub for the entire extended family.

It’s used to house guests or during special occasions such as dances and for family members who become tribal officials to use when needed.

Binford and his family live on another street outside of the historic area.

Thanay Binford, a property manager with the Ohkay Owingeh Pueplo, stands in front of his family home near the pueblo’s plaza. Officials at Okhay Owingeh Pueblo are restoring many of the old homes around their plazas and are planning to finish restoring Binford’s. They are looking for private funding to start the next phase of restorations. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

His traditional family home is one of 15 old adobe homes set to be rehabilitated during the next phase of Ohkay Owingeh’s plaza restoration project, a multimillion-dollar project, involving nearly 60 homes, that has moved away from relying on federal dollars and is now seeking funds for the remaining restorations through private donations.

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Regarding the old family home, Binford said, “We have a functioning central unit (for occasions), but we have two parts on the outskirts that are just collapsing on themselves.”

Binford said restoring and opening up the inside of the home would create living space, rather than a place where people come in and out.

That way, he says, he and his family of five, including kids ages 18, 16 and 10, could stay permanently in the old home and the additional space would allow them to provide for other family members on those special days.

His family then would also live in what Binford referred to as the “revived” plaza area.

“I’d love to see it back as a whole community,” he said of the area surrounding his family home. “Back to the way our ancestors were: a central location and everyone’s home is filled.”

The Owe’neh Bupingeh Plaza Restoration project has already restored 34 deteriorating homes, which were either abandoned or only partially used.

Ohkay Owingeh Housing Authority Executive Director Tomasita Duran, left, and Leslie Colley, the development officer, talk about some of the old homes in the pueblo’s historic area that they have restored, and the ones they still plan to. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Project funding included about $9 million in federal money over four phases of building, according to Housing Authority Director Tomasita Duran. She added that the project was jump-started by a $2 million award through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

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With the federal funding, Duran said, income determined which families would qualify for assistance.

“What we started to learn as we progressed through the phases, and now we’re in the last few phases, is some families on the list don’t qualify for that type of funding.”

Going forward, Ohkay Owingeh has already been awarded a $500,000 affordable housing tax credit from the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority and a W.K. Kellogg Foundation donation to hire a development officer, and now they’re looking into ways to garner interest from individual donors or groups.

Private donors who give more than $200 qualify for a 50 percent tax credit toward any state tax liability owed.

Leslie Colley, a development officer for Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, walks by one of the old homes around their plazas they plan to restore. They are looking for private funding to start the next phase of restorations. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“Fundraising from the private sector is great vehicle for telling this story in general,” said Leslie Colley, who took the development officer job in July. She described the strategy as a more sustainable long-term option. “A lot of people don’t know this story and it’s one of the most innovative tribal housing projects in the country.”

The project has received several awards, including one in 2014 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Like the other adobes, the next 15 homes will be restored with cultural preservation standards and requirements for the owners: It has to be a family’s primary residence and the family must keep up maintenance with chores like mud plastering.

Since 2010, 42 families have been able to move back into homes on the plaza, as opposed to the 12 families who lived there in 2005 when the project began.

“It was very quiet, almost dead,” Duran said of the plaza at that time, when only 56 houses remained in an area that in years past had likely reached around 200. “Now, it’s come to life.”

Lt. Gov. Matthew Martinez, Binford’s cousin, who also uses the family home on occasion, shared the same sentiment about the area’s transformation. “There’s been a surge of energy,” he said.

Around several of the rehabilitated homes, a visitor can see family touches like toys scattered across the front yard, added-on porches, potted plants and basketball hoops.

Four houses also have an added second story.

To date, including the tax credits, the Housing Authority has raised $236,000, said Duran. The goal now is to begin the next phase in 2019 if $3.5 million can be raised by next year.

“That sounds really aggressive, but we have to stay aggressive on this project, stay in tune and move as fast as we possibly can,” she said.

While the project brings visual beauty back to the pueblo, Colley and Duran said its impact is deeper than that. Not only do more people attend traditional feast days and dances, but also it brings back a sense of identity and pride into the centuries-old community, they said.

“With that, our culture continues on for many generations,” said Duran. “Our children grow up in the plaza, in these homes, and also keep the strength to the culture and the language.”

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