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Infrastructure woes may strangle Indian housing boom

WASHINGTON - The housing boom in Indian country is in danger of grinding to a halt because of lack of financing for the necessary infrastructure and bureaucratic obstacles when there is federal money available, a new report has found.

The National American Indian Housing Council has released a report, "Building the Framework: Housing Infrastructure Development in Indian Country," in conjunction with an infrastructure summit it has just held here.

The NAIHC study concludes "major sources of funding are 'insufficient to support infrastructure and housing.' Financial assistance is either in small amounts or has criteria that exclude most tribes from qualifying."

The housing group conducted four case studies, with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians of Michigan; the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina; the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine, and the Susanville Indian Rancheria of California (which consists of four tribes).

"For example," the group noted, "the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians could not pursue state funds through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority because applicants have to be non-discriminatory and the tribe has a 'Native American preference' policy."

Tribes not receiving infrastructure grants can apply for loans, the report notes. "However, with non-existing, or limited economic bases, tribes such as the Point Pleasant Passamaquoddy Tribe have nothing to use as collateral for loans and are unable to make loan payments."

NAIHC sought to study infrastructure specifically as it applies to the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act, which has allowed tribes to leverage their federal IHBG (Indian Housing Block Grant) housing dollars through outside sources. Housing construction on reservations has roughly doubled since NAHASDA was passed. But it found infrastructure regulation roadblocks, especially between the BIA and IHBG, and the Indian Health Service and IHBG.

Using other sources of funding, "such as the Indian Community Development Block Grant, Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is difficult. For example, only federally recognized tribes and Alaskan Native villages are eligible to participate in the ICDBG program; the USDA grants give precedent to cities and towns, tribes are last. The EPA's 'environmental requirements' are a barrier."

Other barriers found are: "unavailability of land, non-uniform building codes, difficult geology, socio-economics (such as extreme poverty), historical prejudices, not being federally recognized and poor relationships with local towns and governments."

NAIHC reported responses from interviews it conducted during 22 technical assistance site visits to its members in January and February that infrastructure for roads was poor to fair; infrastructure for utilities was fair to good; sewer infrastructure was generally poor, but with a number of tribes reporting good, and "for the most part, land title/lease issues remain a major barrier."

And, it noted, "a small percent continue to have no infrastructure in place for roads, sewer systems, water, and utilities."

Also, the report found "it is only somewhat feasible to upgrade current infrastructure. There is a strong need for additional infrastructure that coincides with the negative impact that existing infrastructure has on a tribe's ability to provide housing."

On a positive note, using partnerships and consultants on infrastructure proved to be beneficial for tribes. Consultants especially can be useful on necessary needs assessments, environmental impact studies and geological surveys.

And, "for those tribes that have not established building codes, or follow local county and state codes, they will need to pass resolutions dealing with construction and the various aspects of infrastructure development, including procurement policies, zoning ordinances and easements. To prevent injury to construction workers, it may be necessary to pass resolutions preventing hunting, fishing and trapping in and around construction sites."

While NAHASDA has given tribes more self-determination in housing their own people, infrastructure problems threaten that exercise of sovereignty.

"Having relinquished so much already, it's hard for tribes to accept giving up further self determination rights, especially since tribes desperately need the assistance."