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Housing Conditions In Indian Country: ‘Couch-Surfing and Overcrowded’; More Is Needed

Native leaders testified at a Senate hearing Wednesday that housing efforts across Indian country have shown early success, but more is needed.

Native leaders testified at a Senate hearing Wednesday that housing efforts across Indian country have shown early success, but more is needed to address the pervasive epidemic of homelessness.

Senate Bill 710, to reauthorize the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA), if it passes the Senate, will have to be reconciled with HR 360, the House version, prior to a final vote. At Wednesday’s hearing, members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs heard testimony from several Indian country housing experts.

Asked what is still needed to address housing needs in Indian country, Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, provided a simple answer: More.

“More everything,” she said. “More cooperation between the federal agencies.” She suggested, for example, that federal partner agencies could adopt NAHASDA’s policies, and let funding be distributed through block grants according to tribal policies. And Diver asked for assurances that creative financing won’t be penalized. For example, her tribe’s housing programs have at times diverted [Indian Health Service] dollars for housing needs. But there’s a fear that such moves could result in lower appropriations for housing programs, because Congress would assume tribes were getting those needs met elsewhere: “Some tribes don’t want to say IHS dollars can be used for housing. Sometimes we fear problem solving because we fear there will be less resources.”

Gary Cooper, Cherokee, is executive director of the Housing Authority of the Cherokee Nation, but testified in his role as a board member of the National American Indian Housing Council (NAIHC) in Washington, D.C. He said NAHASDA has signaled a real improvement in the approach to housing problems in Indian country, away from the “cookie-cutter model” that characterized past efforts. “NAHASDA has signaled a shift in relations between tribal governments and the federal government,” he said. “Still, while Indian country has made real strides … the sad truth is in 2015, poverty in America continues to have an Indian face.”

The speakers pointed out that housing by itself has a ways to go, because there was so much need to begin with.

“There are lengthy waiting lists,” Cooper said. “Just when we finish a project, another generation comes along. We have couch-surfing and overcrowded conditions. That’s what homelessness looks like in Indian country.”

Diver agreed. The strides her tribe has been able to make in housing has resulted in increased stability for the children of once-homeless families: “We’ve seen families where this is the first time in their children’s lives that they’ve been able to stay in the same schools for three to four years in a row.”

When families are homeless, Diver pointed out, the children often suffer the most. “Families will take you in and then the stressors of having extra people in the house take over; housing is only stable for three to four months at a time,” she said. “We actually started noting in our police incident reports whether there was overcrowding. It’s very noteworthy that they tend to see more police calls, contact with social services, and truancy [in overcrowded homes].

Russell Sossamon, executive director of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Housing Authority, Hugo, Oklahoma and an alternate board member of NAIHC, added that homelessness is but one piece of a larger puzzle, and more needs to be done to address related solutions including opportunities in higher education, career development and economic development on reservations.

But as the Navajo Nation’s Washington D.C. political advisor Mellor Willie pointed out, the issues are connected both ways: without housing, career and economic development are also stymied. “There is a huge brain drain effect on Navajo,” he said. “Even for middle and higher income families, there’s no housing. Banks are hesitant to finance on tribal trust lands.” On the Navajo Nation, NAHASDA funds and other grant income are being combined to create novel financing packages, and tribal representatives are beginning to seek financiers from Wall Street for private investment.

NHA did not testify at Wednesday’s hearing, but submitted written testimony. In reacting to the hearing afterwards, he pointed out that Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, shared her experience serving as part of the North Dakota finance agency and the challenges in getting even one house financed on tribal trust land in her state.

“She asked the witnesses directly how to address homeownership on tribal trust land,” he said. “Unfortunately, of the three witnesses, two were from Oklahoma – an Indian area with practically no tribal trust land – and the other witness came from a smaller land-based tribe. I think the challenges that larger land-based tribes face with homeownership and lack of capital were not fully addressed in the hearing and I know that Navajo has a lot of information … about the strategies we are taking to create homeownership opportunities through comprehensive, sustainable master-planning.”

Willie said the Navajo Nation is effectively the eighth-largest housing authority in the country, “right behind Atlanta. Navajo is the only public housing authority in the nation, of its size, that exists in rural areas. He said this presents novel issues, such as a lack of infrastructure and lack of capital, as well as the added wrinkle that Navajo includes 90 percent tribal trust land. The current CEO of the Navajo Housing Authority, Aneva J. Yazzie, has spearheaded a reservation-wide master-planning approach that began with a sophisticated mapping system.

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“That’s important because most of the Navajo Nation is so geographically rugged. The mapping system overlays infrastructure and utilities, as well as floodplains, “to find the only logical places to build,” he said. “We had to engage in those discussions with chapters, because a lot of times the chapters were offering us land that wasn’t developable.” That work, combined with a major housing needs assessment, has put Navajo on the path toward addressing major housing needs.

Other tribes have also launched creative solutions with NAHASDA’s support and funds. The Choctaw Housing Authority, created a 501(c)(3) home finance corporation to address the home ownership needs of tribal members. The corporation has made $45 million in direct loans as well as leveraged lending through private partners. The program also offers “homebuyer and financial counseling, how to use your home as an asset throughout your life to achieve other goals,” Sossamon said, in testimony at Wednesday’s hearing.

Among other differences between the House and Senate versions of the reauthorization bill, HR 360 includes an effective date of 2015 for the taking back of unspent NAHASDA funds, while S. 710 provides a 2018 date. The Navajo Nation is particularly adamant that the 2018 date should prevail, as the earlier date would cost the tribe $81 million in the first year alone and would cripple ongoing housing programs on the Navajo Nation. The Nation accrued a backlog of unspent funds due in part to a government-imposed three-year moratorium on program-specific spending moratorium. That was in response to now-resolved allegations of embezzlement and fraud against a previous director of the Navajo Housing Authority. Both freezes have now been lifted, and the Navajo Nation is two years into an ambitious five-year spend-down plan for unused NAHASDA funds.

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“We need that $81 million to leverage what we’ve been working towards,” Willie said.