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Native people must be included in homeownership initiatives

In a previous "Perspectives" column that appeared in Indian Country Today last fall, the National American Indian Housing Council requested that the Bush Administration remember that Native Americans are part of their audience when developing plans to increase minority homeownership. Since then, the White House has not shown any proof that Native Americans and Alaska Natives have moved onto their list of priorities. While this remains in the forefront of the minds of Native people, progress within Indian housing has not and will not be stalled.

On the contrary, Native homeownership has clearly garnered the attention of a few organizations. For example, during the NAIHC's Annual Convention and Trade Show, the nation's largest mortgage lender, Washington Mutual Bank, announced a $1 million grant program to help Native Americans buy homes. Washington Mutual Bank is offering closing cost assistance through its Tribal Lending Programs. This initiative is part of the Bank's commitment to provide $375 billion towards lending and investment for underserved populations. Others in the mortgage industry should take note.

Earlier this year in Arizona, Fannie Mae and Bank One started working on their $12.5 billion initiative to provide affordable mortgage financing for underserved populations, including tribes. In addition, in June, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development celebrated National Homeownership Month by sending key leaders on a bus tour of the country. The bus delivered HUD's Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing, Michael Liu, to the Paiute Indian Reservation in Utah, allowing Paiute members a chance to learn more about homeownership opportunities. During Liu's visit, he reaffirmed HUD's commitment to increasing minority homeownership, saying, "Housing in Indian country is important on the agenda of the Blueprint for the American Dream Partnership with respect to the ability to develop housing on tribal lands and with respect to cultural values."

Progress aside, significant impediments remain on the horizon, including abusive mortgage loans. This is demonstrated through data from a newly released report on predatory lending in tribal areas. In a survey conducted by NAIHC and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, 52.9 percent of respondents said they believe that lenders discriminate based on race and acknowledged that predatory or unfair lending is a serious problem for many tribes.

Respondents said predatory lenders specifically target Native mobile home buyers (32.4 percent) and first-time homebuyers (35 percent). The report also found that some Native homeowners received loans with unbelievably high interest rates, typically 15.3 percent, but some as high as 30 percent.

As long as these disturbing practices continue, life for much of Indian country will remain less than ideal, as tribal members live in homes with high-cost, unfair terms or in homes that are substandard or overcrowded. That's why NAIHC would like to propose a simple challenge to the Bush Administration: Create a minimum of 49,500 Native American homeowners by 2010.

Why 49,500? It's 0.9 percent of the 5.5 million new minority homeowners that President Bush hopes to create by the end of this decade. And, Native Americans account for 0.9 percent of the U.S. population, according to 2000 Census data.

Admittedly, the number is small and would only fractionally reduce tribal waiting lists, in which there are thousands awaiting housing. However, the number is achievable, and it represents a verifiable number of housing units, something HUD, NAIHC and others in the Indian housing arena can reach for.

Meeting the goal of 49,500 would (hopefully) be a mere expectation; exceeding the goal would be a phenomenal achievement that would better the lives of so many deserving Native families. But the fact is that the goal will not be reached unless the housing industry starts now to address the immediate need for thousands of homes in Indian country and eliminate the obstacles to Native homeownership.

So far, NAIHC and others active in Indian housing have made important strides to clear the path to homeownership. These actions include:

* Increased federal funding for NAHASDA. A well-funded housing program allows tribes the flexibility to meet individual housing needs.

* Partnerships. Tribes must work with organizations that have the required resources to bring housing to Indian nations.

* Education. This works three ways. Educate tribal leaders on the importance of homeownership among other tribal issues, educate tribal members on the homeownership process and prevent opportunities for abuse, and educate mortgage lenders on Native culture and needs.

* Better legislation and regulation. It's important to put strong regulations in place to demand fair mortgage loans and force lenders to take more responsibility in their actions. NAIHC has already called for Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) data collection standards to be revised, which would unveil the story behind loans for Native Americans. As for legislation, some tribes, such as the Grand Traverse Tribe of Michigan, have already passed anti-predatory legislation to protect tribal members.

These steps are already in progress and are crucial to continuing change and progress for Native families for generations to come. Time and again, it seems to be necessary to remind the government of its duty to take care of First Americans, and this responsibility will not disappear, especially as the Native population expands. The generations who have not yet been born, as well as today's people, deserve to live in comfortable, affordable, safe homes. But until things change for the better, the story of Indian housing will remain an unending saga, which is especially sad, considering that such a proud group of people are living so poorly within the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world.

NAIHC's contribution will be to continue offering tribes a host of specialized training and access to a variety of resources. And NAIHC will use its status as the premier Indian housing organization by seeking new ways to address the housing issues that plague Native Americans and Alaska Natives. We do this in hopes that one day soon the federal government will be reminded of the power, strength and beauty of Native people as we reach out our hands to help our children, our brothers and sisters, and our elders get their chance at achieving the American dream: owning our own homes and sheltering our families.

In addition to his duties as chairman of the National American Indian Housing Council, Russell Sossamon, a Choctaw tribal member, is the executive director of the Housing Authority of the Choctaw Nation. Gary L. Gordon, a member of the Mohawk tribe, is the executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council.