Home ownership remains elusive for Native communities

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs room (Photo by Kolby KickingWoman)

Kolby KickingWoman

Congress heard about the various barriers that make lending in Indian Country difficult

For generations, the idea of owning a home was just part of the natural progression in life. Like buying a car or starting a family.

Yet, structural barriers and bureaucratic red tape makes home ownership only a dream for too many in Indian Country. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico says that needs to change.

“The dream of home ownership should be attainable to everyone no matter where they live in the United States,” said Udall in his opening remarks Tuesday afternoon at an oversight hearing.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs focused on “Lending Opportunities: Opening the Door to Homeownership in Indian Country” on Capitol Hill after a two-week break. It was the first task on the long list of to-do’s other than the impeachment inquiry being led by the House of Representatives.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, echoed the comments from Udall. Tester said the housing situation in Indian Country is similar to the conditions of “inner-city poverty.” He added that housing affects everything from attracting businesses, teachers, law enforcement and more.

“Everything has the foundational issue of housing and it needs some attention in Indian Country,” Tester said.

One program that repeatedly came up throughout the hearing was the Section 184 Indian Home Loan Guarantee Program that was established in 1992 to increase access to capital for Native communities which in turn would increase home ownership.

Housing and Urban Development Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing, Hunter Kurtz, said the program remains popular and has grown exponentially. In 1994, it gave out less than 100 loans compared to the more than $7 billion in guarantees today.

Another initiative that also came up was Native Community Development Financial Institutions which are uniquely qualified to deal with tribal citizens. Although, the current administration has not appropriated funding for the Native financial institutions for the last three budget cycles.

Max Zuni, governor of the Pueblo of Isleta, said his tribe established their own financial institution six years ago. It has helped more than 80 people purchase a home. But there are approximately 130 people still on the waiting list.

Zuni appreciates the programs offered by the BIA and Department of Housing and Urban Development but hopes there is a way to change some policies to help expedite lease agreements and contracts.

“It takes almost two years to get some of these things go through BIA and luckily with the [financial institution], within two to three months they are done,” Zuni said. “Our community members are happy they can a home built in a year.”

He then cited his daughter as a success story of how the loan program through the financial institutions work.

Left to right: Hunter Kurtz, Department of Housing and Urban Development Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing; Gov. Max Zuni, Pueblo of Isleta; Council member Nathaniel Mount, Ft. Belknap Indian Community; Darryl LaCounte, Director, Bureau of Indian Affairs; Patrice Kunesh, Director, Center for Indian Country Development

On the other hand, Nathaniel Mount, council member from the Fort Belknap Indian Community, painted the picture facing his tribe. He said it isn’t uncommon to see 13 to 18 people in a single home.

Despite being a serious discussion, Mount did provide the committee and people attending the hearing a chuckle when describing the hoops one tribal member had to go through while applying for a home loan through the loan-guarantee-program process.

“He’s the CEO of our corporation and he had to get a EPA specialist to come and say that he was not going to disturb any coastal land in north central Montana,” Mount said. “It’s ridiculous, unnecessary and burdensome.”

The hearing made clear there is still much work to be done by Congress when it comes to increasing access to home ownership for Native communities.

Testimony and playback of the hearing can be viewed here.

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Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com