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American Indian home owning declines

WASHINGTON ? Native homeownership rates have stagnated for the last two years, a Congressionally chartered housing commission has found.

This shocking conclusion, despite much publicity and effort to put American Indians into homes of their own in recent years, reveals both the extent of the tremendous unmet housing need in Indian country and the lack of money to fix the problem.

The Millennial Housing Commission reported to Congress on May 30 that Indian country immediately needs 220,000 new housing units, but that current funding is inadequate to the task. The report also revealed that the homeownership rate for American Indians, Aleuts and Eskimos for 2001 was 55.4 percenta rate lower than it was in 1999 and 2000.

The commission, chaired by AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust chairman Richard Ravitch and former U.S. Rep. Susan Molinari, cited Census Bureau statistics showing that homeownership rates for Indians were at 56.1 percent for 1999 and 56.2 percent in 2000. All of those rates were more than a dozen percentage points below the national homeownership average, which has risen steadily to a record level of 67.8 percent for 2001.

This information appeared in the supporting data for the commission's recommendations on American Indians. The report called for:

?appropriating more funding for tribal housing block grants;

?simplifying thorny land issues; increasing money for housing infrastructure;

?boosting funds for Native Hawaiians;

?developing student housing for tribal colleges; and

?broadening tribal access to tax-exempt bonding authority.

While the Commission urged Congress to increase funding to implement its recommendations, it did not ask for any specific dollar amounts. The body decided it was not its job to "score" its recommendations to cost them out, said Dan Fauske, executive director of the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., who chaired the Native American and rural subcommittee of the Commission.

But Fauske told Indian Country Today he was in agreement with the National American Indian Housing Council's request for an increase in housing block-grant money to $1 billion yearly, from the current level of $650 million.

Much of the Commission's Native recommendations came from work by Roberta Youmans, program analyst of the Federal Housing Finanace Board, who was detailed to the commission on a part-time basis.

Fauske said his Alaska Housing Finance Corp. does much work with Native Alaskan housing, and that there had been some debate on the commission about investing in communities that lack a viable economy, as many Indian areas do. But he said housing and infrastructure development are "an integral part" of overall economic development.

Fauske also objected to the prevalence of substandard housing in Indian country, "in the richest country in the world.

"I don't think that should be the case," he said. "How can you have people living in tarpaper shacks?"

Investing in Indian country is also a legal and sovereignty issue, he said. "You go back to the treaties. Either you honor them or you don't."

The commission made many more broad recommendations to Congress beyond the Indian agenda. It called for increasing affordable housing opportunities in America, making the Federal Housing Administration a private corporation, and adding a tax credit for homeownership.

Gary Gordon, executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council, endorsed the commission's findings. "These recommendations are urgently needed in Indian country," he said. "We seek their immediate implementation."

The commission observed "there is a critical need for institutions on Native American reservations to manage the financing for housing construction, rehabilitation, and home improvement loans." It recommended increased funding for technical assistance and intermediaries like Community Development Financial Institutions. The federal CDFI Fund recently has started a $5-million pilot project to provide technical assistance to develop Native CDFIs.

The commission also urged funding for the Land Title Commission "to accelerate the mortgage lending process," calling for an improvement in "the current system for maintaining ownership records and title documents, as well as for issuing certified title status reports."

Noting that 73 percent of all tribal water treatment facilities are considered inadequate and that fewer than 50 percent of homes on reservations are connected to public sewers, the commission called for increased funding for the Indian Health Service and the Rural Utility Service for housing-related infrastructure.

The body noted that 20,000 Native Hawaiian families are currently on a waiting list for Hawaiian homelands, and asked more housing assistance for them. "Nearly half of all Native Hawaiians experience problems of housing affordability, overcrowding, and structural inadequacy," the report said.

Tribal colleges also receive little or no funding from the states they are in, said the report. It asked for a demonstration project for housing at the 32 tribal colleges now in existence.

Finally, the commission asked Congress to broaden the power of tribes to issue tax-exempt private activity bonds for housing. Currently, tribes cannot issue such debt instruments for single-family or multi-family ownership units, but only for rental projects.