Tribes need more funds, more attention for housing

As the 107th Congress winds down, there remain a number of unaddressed legislative issues in Indian country. One issue requiring close consideration is housing for small and large tribes, particularly because tribes of all sizes are not receiving enough federal funding. In the case of small tribes, which typically have a population under 500 and receive less than $400,000 annually from Indian Housing Block Grants, their housing programs suffer from decreased effectiveness.

To ensure that all tribes receive a fair amount of money, funding of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA) needs to increase to $1 billion by 2007, an increase of $350 million. Roughly $650 million has been budgeted for 2003, but it has not yet received Congressional approval. While policymakers may understand that NAHASDA has increased construction, rehabilitation and development of units, further financial support is necessary to address the concerns of Native people, given the enormity of their unmet needs and the extensiveness of their land base. Of course, it remains to be seen where the funding will come from. One thing is clear, to ensure that all tribes receive an adequate portion of federal housing dollars, funding needs to be distributed in a fair and equitable manner to address the needs of all tribes.

Why is funding insufficient? In addition to the development and construction of homes, funds are supposed to cover a variety of purposes: administrative costs, staff expenses, travel and training costs. This does not include the cost of housing units, which, in most of Indian country, is quite expensive due to infrastructure costs. Factoring in the costs of electricity, sewage, water and adequate roads, building a home on reservation land is an expensive endeavor. Large tribes, with their extensive land bases, have a strong need for required infrastructure, while there are occasions when small tribes must choose between sending people to training or operating their housing programs. All too frequently, it is impossible for many tribes to provide adequate housing or satisfy the need of tribal members.

Recognizing that everyone deserves a decent place to call home, the National American Indian Housing Council (NAIHC), has spent almost 30 years representing the housing interests of Native Americans and Alaska Natives. NAIHC is in the process of fostering a progressive partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the BIA and other government agencies.

In addition, NAIHC offers training sessions specifically for small tribes, including a Mentoring Program, helping tribal housing staff make the most of their limited resources. NAIHC also provides scholarships to attend our nationwide courses. Earlier this month, NAIHC's sister organization, the Coalition for Indian Housing and Development (CIHD), created a Small Tribes Task Force which intends to discuss fair and equitable distribution of federal funds, encouraging need-based funding for all tribes and making specific recommendations to Congress.

Basically, two things can help the housing programs of small tribes: increase federal appropriations for Native housing programs and determine baseline funding for tribes, currently a paltry $25,000. Still, for tribes to receive sufficient funds federal housing appropriations must increase and a sufficient funding level must be determined for small and large tribes.

However, it must be noted that appropriations for Indian housing are not low-income handouts; instead, they are part of the U.S. government's trust responsibilities. This responsibility is spelled out in American treaties; Native people are entitled to adequate, safe and sanitary homes, like anyone else. And small tribes are deserving of enough money to provide adequate housing for their tribal members ? like anyone else. With this in mind, NAIHC is committed to strengthening our representation of issues affecting both small and large tribes, hoping that tribes of all sizes remember that any investment in Native homeownership is an investment in the self-sufficiency of Native people.

Russell Sossamon is the executive director of the Choctaw Housing Authority and is the new chairman for both CIHD and NAIHC, which represent 220 tribal housing entities seeking improved living conditions for tribal members.