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Overcrowded housing 'worse problem than homelessness' says NAIHC

WASHINGTON, DC ? Overcrowding is a worse problem on American Indian reservations than homelessness, according to the National American Indian Housing Council. Native housing is an astounding six to eight times more crowded than the national average, said the council in a report released Feb. 12.

American Indian populations are six times more crowded than the national average, and Alaska Native housing is eight times more crowded, said Gary Gordon (Mohawk), executive director of NAIHC.

The results of jamming so many people together include epidemics of respiratory illness, skin conditions, head lice, alcoholism, sleep deprivation that affects schooling and a lack of privacy that spawns an atmosphere conducive to physical and sexual abuse of children.

And the nature of overcrowding in Indian communities is also changing, and not for the better. Whereas previous generations were likely only to invite extended family to live with them, currently there are more "compound" households ? those that mix relatives and non-relatives.

"Native people are reluctant to say no" when relatives or friends need a place to live, Gordon said, resulting in situations where 25 or more people can live in one house, which may be substandard as well as overcrowded.

At a news conference at the legislative conference of NAIHC's lobbying affiliate, the Council on Indian Housing and Development, the director described a one bedroom house on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota where until recently 17 people were living. (It is currently 15). "The house, built as a temporary home about 30 years ago, was abandoned previously as too substandard. Its current occupants moved in when there was no other housing."

Among its substandard features are a sagging ceiling, uneven floors, faulty bathroom fixtures, and poor insulation to the point where it is not warm inside on Plains winter days even with a wood-burning stove and oven going.

Living in the house at the time of the interview were:

-- A mother and her five children

-- The woman's sister and her granddaughter

-- The mother's uncle

-- The mother's grown nephew

-- The girlfriend of one of her sons, and

-- An unrelated man.

In addition, seven other family members have lived there or sometimes live there.

The report, coordinated by LeeAnna Arrowchis (Ute) of the research department of NAIHC and written by ethnologist Dr. Mitchell Ratner, noted that, using U.S. Census criteria for overcrowding (more than one person to a room), 32.5 percent of all Indian housing is overcrowded, as is 40.4 percent of Alaska Native housing. These figures compare with 4.9 percent for the United States as a whole.

The report studied locations in Alaska, Arizona and South Dakota in one-week site visits by Arrowchis and Ratner. In addition, Valerie Seneca, (Seneca) and Nancy Harjo (Creek) went on one of the site visits. The team visited about ten households in each location.

Gordon underlined four recommendations in the report:

-- The need for more housing.

-- Additional resources to Indian Housing Authorities and tribally-designated housing entities (TDHEs) to recognize their broad role beyond just managing housing.

-- Redefining "housing need" definitions that govern resource allocation to better fit Indian country.

-- Expanding economic bases and putting the problem in perspective of Indian values and cultures.

The report is unusual in that it provides extensive views of the history of the communities over centuries, in order to put the problems facing the communities today in context.

It examines the cultures and the housing habits of the communities in question, taking into consideration the effects of European contact, confinement to reservations, and the beginnings of federal housing assistance programs in the 1960s.

So in the O'odham community in Arizona, for instance, comfortable "sandwich" houses (interspersing bricks and wooden blocks) gave way in recent decades to housing projects of Mutual Help and low-income rental housing.

The most crowded house visited in that community was a 690-square-foot unit (that's approximately 30 by 23 feet) lived in by a single mother and her four children.

In the Inupiat village visited in Alaska, the most crowded unit was even more packed. In a one-room house 15 by 15 feet lived a couple and their three children in a house where "the door does not close properly, windows do not fit tightly and drafts blow through the house ? during the winter, the house is so cold the windows frost over even with the small oil heater turned up high, and with the hot plates turned on and the electric heater on."

In other housing news from the conference, Chester Carl (Navajo) chairman of NAIHC, criticized a "lack of willingness of private lenders to do business in Indian country."

Carl, also director of the Navajo Housing Authority, noted that his IHA, with $700 million of net worth and $300 million of housing projects underway, must collateralize 100 percent of any amount to get a line of credit from a lender.

So even with the Department of Housing and Urban Development's section 184 loan program guarantees, lenders are not stepping up to the plate and the HUD 184 "is not doing its job."

And he noted an invasion of predatory lenders into Indian country, especially with mobile home finance.