Tribal Housing: Big Challenges Remain, But Some Positives Seen As Well

Hefty challenges remain for American Indian housing advocates battling inadequate and decaying reservation homes, continuing overcrowding of units, and a lack of outside investment. But the news isn’t all grim. It looks as if federal funding for Indian housing will remain level—a real triumph in an era of federal cost retrenchment. Housing advocates have wrested some consultation input into an important forthcoming federal Native housing needs assessment. And there may even be some international investment in Indian housing in the future.

Examples of housing challenges were close at hand when the National American Indian Housing Council (NAIHC) held its annual meeting in Anchorage, Alaska recently. The state’s more than 200 rural Alaska Native villages are a prime example of inadequate Native housing. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski told Washington, D.C.-based NAIHC’s meeting that it can cost up to $1 million a piece to build even a modest home, due to the short building season, high cost of construction, and extremely expensive shipping costs to places that may be reachable only by barge or airstrip.

The result? A legacy of decaying “HUD homes” (funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development) built in the 1970s and visibly decaying, which weren’t adequate to Alaska’s harsh climate in the first place. And, they are now jammed with ten or more people living in each unit. Add in mold and mildew and the HUD homes become potent launching places for an epidemic of respiratory problems among Alaska Native children, the senator said.

“It’s a hard one,” agrees Cheryl Causley, NAIHC chair, on the Alaska Native housing problem. “There’s a real lack of capital.” Causley, a member of the Bay Mills Indian Community of Michigan, said “We brought Congress up here in 2005” to see the problems firsthand in hope of more assistance. Causley was re-elected at the meeting to a second two-year term as NAIHC chair.

“There’s a lack of investment banking,” agrees Mellor Willie, the executive director of the group, which numbers 241 Indian housing authorities or entities in its ranks. “We try to get banks to come in and get a connection to the communities.”

Willie, Navajo, points to Title VI of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA) as a potential source for community development funds. He also encourages Alaska Native villages and corporations to leverage funds from state agencies.

It looks as if Congress will authorize $650 million in NAHASDA funding for fiscal 2013, the NAIHC officials say. That would be level funding to the past two years, when many groups have seen funding cut. Still, “it’s not enough to do the job,” says Willie. “If you factor in inflation we’re going backwards.” Based on inflation, “we should be receiving $835 million.” NAIHC has asked Congress to provide $700 million in housing assistance.

HUD is now conducting, at the direction of Congress, an Indian housing needs assessment. Causley has been fighting to get more tribal consultation on the important effort, and has seen some success with that.

“It could affect funding,” she says of the study. “It could have an effect in the right way.”

NAIHC organized a national meeting with HUD in 2011 which attracted more than 50 tribal leaders who expressed their concerns about consultation. HUD agreed to a series of eight regional consultation meetings. The last one will be in Durant, Oklahoma on July 9. Current projection for the final report is August 2014.

Previous needs assessments have estimated a current need of at least 250,000 units of new housing in Indian country.

Mortgage finance from private banks would be helpful, but potent barriers remain, Causley says. One is the leasing issue.

For an Indian to get a mortgage on reservation trust land, the tribe has to lease the land to them. A title status report (TSR) must be gotten from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and delays can be lengthy.

NAIHC recently scored an unusual unanimity in Congress to help alleviate this problem. The HEARTH Act (Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership) passed the House of Representatives 400-0. It would allow tribes to start their own title plants to speed up the approval process. BIA “has to give the thumbs up” to individual tribes, Causley says, but “if (tribes) have the capacity, you should be able to do it.”

“It’s a good bill,” Causley says, “and it shouldn’t cost them any money.” But its final passage is not certain, especially if HEARTH gets attached to any other, more controversial piece of legislation, says Willie.

The Housing and Urban Development section 184 mortgage, which guarantees 100 percent of lender outlays, “has been very, very useful,” Causley says, though she notes conventional (private) mortgages can be less expensive. The meeting heard that $2.7 billion of HUD 184s have been extended to Indians since program inception.

Other issues on the NAIHC radar screen include the 2013 re-authorization of NAHASDA, which was passed into law in 1996. There is a general consensus that NAHASDA is the most important piece of Indian housing ever passed, making its reauthorization a priority to NAIHC. Key to its importance is the “SD” part of the acronym: self-determination. NAHASDA was a key ingredient in the federal government treating Indian nations as sovereign. Before NAHASDA, HUD supervised Indian housing grants and built and maintained units (the “HUD homes” Sen. Murkowski referred to). After NAHASDA, the tribes themselves have the authority to decide how to use their government housing assistance.

Training and technical assistance is an important service of NAIHC. Each year there is a battle to get capacity building technical-assistance money from Congress. Then, Willie detailed to the meeting, NAIHC often doesn’t get appropriated money in a timely fashion.

The group is hoping for $4 million from Congress for fiscal year 2013, which starts in October. In fiscal 2010, Willie told the meeting, the group got $3.5 million appropriated but did not receive the money until October 2010—the start of the next fiscal year. FY 2011 was even worse, a 19 month delay in getting appropriated money.

Willie says NAIHC is considering adding technical assistance for operating tribal title plants to its training mix. One of its many current offerings is “train the trainer” training for homebuyer education.

Unexpended funds is another issue NAIHC wants to stay on top of. This is a threat to reduce federal funding if tribes haven’t spent the money they received—or even to take money back. Because of lack of infrastructure, it is sometimes hard for tribes to get projects planned and finished in time to suit federal auditors. But Willie says tribal housing entities are expending 90% of what they receive. “We blew public housing authorities out of the water” by contrast, he says.

An additional source of investment in American Indian housing may come from an unlikely source- Turkey. “We went to Turkey,” Willie says, under the auspices of the Turkish Coalition of America. Why Turkey? Willie says the Turks feel a cultural connection to American Indians.

“They reached out to us,” Willie says. “They started to understand the need in Indian country.” Plus, when housing officials visited Turkey, “they truly treated us as sovereign governments.”

The upshot may be a grant from a Turkish international development association. Plus, a scholarship to a Turkish “MIT-style” university will be offered to an American Indian student.

NAIHC officials were set to attend a World Indigenous Housing Conference in Vancouver in June to pursue the international connection. That meeting was set to have representatives of four countries: the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“It’s very, very exciting,” says Causley.