KRTV.com | Great Falls, Montana
POPLAR -There's no such thing as a free lunch, but the Fort Peck Indian tribe has learned there's also no such thing as a free house.
A deal with Hollywood actor turned architect Brad Pitt and his "Make It Right" foundation to give houses to those in need has built exactly zero of the 20 homes promised on the reservation since 2011.
In a promotional video on the foundation's website, the four locations in the foundation's plan are highlighted.
"From apartments for disabled veterans in New Jersey, to mixed-use housing helping kids leaving foster care in Missouri, to homes for Native Americans in Montana," the sound of Brad Pitt's voice states.
"That's what they told us," said Fort Peck Tribal Council Executive Board Member Tommy Christian. "We have 20 of the best architects in the whole world under us and we're gonna come and save you Indians from yourselves."
Now tribal councilman Tommy Christian, along with the rest of the Fort Peck tribal council, questions if it's the foundation the tribe needs saving from.
"This project has caused a lot of division on our council," said Councilman Garret Big Leggins. "And we've got councilmen who are mad at each other for the way this has developed and we feel like we're stuck."
Stuck in a rut four years deep and housing on the reservation is not getting any better.
Residents say there is a desperate need for housing, a fact that is glaringly obvious on nearly every single block on the reservation.
Where homes once stood, burnt up walls and piles of ash remain.
And homes that still stand hold two, sometimes three or more families each.
When the New Orleans-based foundation approached the tribe with a solution, the idea was hard to pass up.
In 2011, former Councilman Stoney Anketel sealed the deal with the "Make It Right" foundation, a commitment to build 20 sustainable homes for free.
But when Anketel was not re-elected in 2013, the tribe lost its main connection with the Pitt's foundation.
And after Anketel left Fort Peck and moved to Washington state, the word "free" left the reservation as well.
"At the beginning, that we wouldn't have to put in nothing and now we're talking a little over a half million dollars we have to put in to get this project going," said Councilman Dana Buckles.
The tribe committed $600,000 in a good faith deposit. But the buck did not stop there.
Fort Peck Journal reporter Louis Montclair watched tensions rise at tribal council meetings as the costs piled up.
"Make It Right does build houses, they will build the houses for free, you know their architects," said Montclair. "But they don't do infrastructure, though."
Infrastructure - the sewer system, water main, developed land - add up to $2.6 million in seemingly unexpected costs.
Deb Madison, a board member of Integrated Solutions, the company charged with the build, said the tribe wasted time and in turn wasted money.
"The tax credit situation, if we'd moved as fast as we had initially promised to, we would have got a higher bid because at one point we had three people who wanted in on this project and now we're down to one," said Madison.
The price grew and the tribe had to decide: Commit the $2.6 million or bail and lose the deposit.
Cutting loses would also mean defaulting on $5 million in tax credits and, thus, broken credit.
After a 6-to-5 vote in February, the tribe decided to take the loan and build the homes.
"That $2.6 is not only for the sustainable village but it's covering everything as a whole in case there's future development there and all that infrastructure will already be there," said Buckles.
It's become a field of dreams to build 20 homes, but four years later there's nothing to show for the time or the money.
But you wouldn't know that from what the foundation has posted on its Facebook page.
The page shows what it described as Fort Peck Indians on the reservation.
"(They are) showing people that are not even from this reservation, showing homes that are not even from here," said Buckles.
The homes in the pictures are not on the reservation and the homes in the designs are not there either.
The sustainable “green” homes in those designs will end up costing about $283,000 each, according to the plan outlined by the foundation.
And the developer of these high-dollar homes, Integrated Solutions, is accompanied by some high risks of its own.
"One of the big risks is Integrated Solutions have never built homes," said Madison.
Integrated Solutions has experience building tables and other office furniture, but not houses.
But Madison said she has faith. She said the designs are beautiful, eco-friendly and modern.
Throughout the interview, she clicked through the designs on her computer in her office, which is in the same building as the tribal office.
But Madison is likely the only one who has seen these designs.
“If there's a miscommunication it's on her part,” said Big Leggins. “She rarely comes in and talks to us about these issues and she's not sharing the data with us. If this is true, this is the first time I've heard it, right now from you."
Big Leggins said the tribe has reached out to the foundation, but no calls are ever returned.
An MTN News reporter faced the same issue with reaching the foundation, but after a month of emails and calls, a spokeswoman responded to questions about the nearly four-year delay the project has experienced.
An email from a foundation spokeswoman states: "The project has suffered various delays since June 2012 - mainly related to the EPA assessment of the landfill site."
The spokeswoman said the foundation must receive a “letter of invitation” from the build site in order to begin. That letter was apparently received in 2012.
However, the fulfillment of several financial commitments and obligations was not completed until February 2015, the foundation spokeswoman said in the email.
Despite the controversy, the doubt, the blame, and the money spent, Buckles said he still supports this project.
A lottery will be drawn to select which families will live in the homes.
The contract states that five homes must be built and lived in by July 1, 2015.
All 20 homes must be built and lived in by Dec. 1, 2015.
Tribal elections are in October.
So if the council members involved in this project are not re-elected, it will take a new set of supporters to make this happy ending a reality.
"There's lots of tribal dollars at stake and we're trying really hard to protect all those tribal dollars and still get 20 homes because we need 20 homes," said Madison. "We need homes here. We need homes desperately."
And as desperation grows, the questions remains: Will "Make It Right" make it right?