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The changing face of Indian housing (part two)

Indian Country Today recently interviewed Gary Gordon, executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council, at NAIHC's Legal Symposium in Las Vegas. Gordon, a Mohawk and former chairman of the Housing Authority of the Oneida Nation of New York, spoke about construction of new housing, pressures on infrastructure new construction is causing, and the opportunities for mortgage finance on tribal reserves.

ICT: Since NAHASDA (the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act) was put into place, there's been a tremendous boom in construction on reservations. Are you able to quantify that number? Bob Gauthier (former Salish Kootenai Housing Authority chairman) said that back under the 1937 Housing Act, you'd see about 2,000 - 3,000 homes constructed in a year. What's that number now?

GORDON: The numbers we get from HUD (Housing and Urban Development) are approximately 5,000 per year since the inception of NAHASDA , which is about a five-year period.

ICT: That causes a big infrastructure problem, right? You've got double the number of houses being built, but not double the amount of dollars from the Indian Health Service to build wells and things like that. How do you address that problem?

GORDON: Infrastructure and the lack of infrastructure is obviously a major problem in Indian country. In order to build the homes we have to have infrastructure built. There are IHS funds available, for water and sewer, but those funds cannot be used to provide infrastructure for NAHASDA-assisted homes. So we have that kind of a limitation. Because it's been such a problem for us, NAIHC hosted an infrastructure summit. Out of that we developed a task force of federal agencies as well as NAIHC to focus specifically on the infrastructure problem. There is an existing tri-party agreement between IHS, HUD and BIA for infrastructure on Indian lands, but apparently it's gathered dust over the years. What we want to do is see what we can do to revise that and bring that up to date and to include other federal agencies.

ICT: You've quantified housing need in Indian country over the years. Is the need getting more pressing, or as some tribes get casino or natural resource revenue there's a wealth effect and the housing shortage is less acute?

GORDON: Even though new units are been built, the Native population is increasing. We have problems with overcrowded housing. We're finding that as we're building housing on tribal lands, we're finding more tribal members living off tribal lands want an opportunity to return to housing on tribal lands. The need is at least remaining constant or even increasing.

ICT: You've started a Mortgage Partnership Committee. How do you see the attempts to bring mortgage finance onto Indian lands? How do you see it in years to come? Is that going to be a real big factor in housing Indian people?

GORDON: Thus far it's gone relatively well. We've gone in with a number of partners to establish and develop programs that are beginning more and more to impact Indian country, to identify the barriers to see if we can increase independence in Indian country. We have had a number of problems with lenders making private mortgages on Indian lands. We argue that we need more partners to become even more active. We need to have more funds made available. As an organization we're willing to work with all of our partners to identify the best ways to do that and assist them in making those programs successful.

ICT: One of the other astonishing numbers, besides the General Accounting Office report of 91 mortgages done in Indian country between 1992 and 1996, is the 113-year title status backlog at BIA. That's one of the biggest barriers to extending finance on reservations. How do you combat that massive backlog?

GORDON: That has been one of the biggest barriers. We have met with BIA to see how we can work together to simplify that progress. There are some BIA regional offices that have gotten more efficient in turning those things around.

ICT: The Aberdeen (S.D.) office puts a priority on it.

GORDON: We believe if it can be done in one regional office it can be done in all regional offices. What they need to do is look at the Aberdeen office and use that as a model.

ICT: How do you think the government-guaranteed mortgage programs for Indian country are going to play out? Are they going to increase exponentially, or are they going to stay static or increase a little bit?

GORDON: I think there are some programs that have been successful, like the USDA programs. If you look at the HUD programs, the 184, even Title VI there has been some growth. The 184 has seen an increase of 36 percent over the prior year. What you have to do is look at what may be inhibiting additional growth in the 184 program. If we can do that, I think we can increase homeownership exponentially on tribal lands.

ICT: What are the biggest barriers to homeownership on tribal lands and how do you overcome them?

GORDON: There are a number of tribes that actually don't have a legal structure, that don't have housing ordinances; they don't have anything to establish priority of liens, things obviously that the lenders are very much concerned with. I think what we need to do is look at those tribes to develop that kind of a structure. We also think there's continued need for homebuyer education in Indian country. We have been very active in homebuyer education training. We have put together with the National Congress of American Indians, First Nations Development Institute and other organizations a coalition to develop a culturally relevant, very comprehensive homebuyer education system. What we want to do now is take the lead, to provide the actual train the trainers session, so that people who are working at the TDHEs (tribally designated housing entities) have better skills to provide buyer education and counseling as well.

ICT: Give us some tribal success stories. Which tribes have been successful at getting home finance on the reservations and which lenders did they work with?

GORDON: I'm not as familiar with the lenders. I was able to attend an opening at the Pueblo of Acoma, N.M., where there are 30 homes they have built for homeownership under NAHASDA. All the homes were culturally sensitive, were environmentally sensitive, were well built and well constructed and the program has been within budget. The Nez Perce, they have a 64-home development that they've concluded. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, with a Title VI plan designed to produce over 500 homes. So there have been those kinds of successes.