What is the current state of housing on American Indian tribal lands? Well, it depends on which party you ask. A recent hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs brought starkly different opinions from the federal government and the tribal leadership.
For Rodger J. Boyd, deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Native American Programs and the Office of Public and Indian Housing at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the state of tribal housing is a glowing success.
‘From HUD's perspective, our Indian housing programs are making great progress in providing housing to Indian families across the country because we do not take a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to Indian Country,’ said Boyd in his hearing testimony. ‘Our programs provide the flexibility for our grant and loan recipients to tailor their housing programs to address their unique housing and economic development needs.’
Boyd pointed to the Indian Housing Block Grant (IHBG) program as having a positive impact on tribal housing development.
‘The block grant approach offers each tribe the flexibility to design, implement and administer unique, innovative housing programs,based on local need,’ he stated. ‘Grantees have received more than $9.9 billion in 16 years of funding [1998 to 2013] and, with few exceptions, have been using the funds in a timely and effective manner. Overall, the IHBG program has a 94 percent expenditure rate.’
Boyd also commented on how IHBG funds have helped bring green building practices to Indian Country – including much-valued Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications.
‘For example, the Ho-Chunk Housing Authority of Wisconsin has developed housing projects that include green, energy-efficiency enhancements, including super-insulation, passive-solar design, geothermal systems and solar hot-water heaters,’ he said. ‘The Choctaw Housing Authority of Oklahoma has recently built 24 new units that are all Energy Star Certified. Just one year ago, the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority, in Juneau, Alaska, celebrated the grand opening of its Five Star Plus, energy-efficient Saxman Senior Center. And the Ketchikan community in southeast Alaska completed a 12-unit, condo-style building to house elders, which is the first building in that area to be certified LEED Silver.
‘The Puyallup Tribe in Tacoma has 10 units of new affordable housing that is certified LEED Platinum,’ he continued. ‘The Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico has used the innovative method of lava block construction to build 20 single-family homes. They realized a 50 percent cost savings over conventional construction techniques. The homes have maintenance-free exteriors, Energy Star appliances and fixtures, and the materials are termite-resistant and impervious to wind damage. The development created job training and employment opportunities for [the] local community.’
On the other hand, the view from American Indian housing leaders showed a much different picture. Russell Sossamon, executive director of the Choctaw Nation Housing Authority, based in Durant, Okla., noted that significant economic pressures have weighed heavily on Choctaw tribal members.
‘Approximately 9,880 households within the Choctaw Nation's service area are considered low income, meaning they have annual incomes of less than 80 percent of the national median annual income,’ he said. ‘Of those households, an astounding 29.7 percent earn only between 30 percent and 50 percent of the national median annual income, and even worse, 29.8 percent earn less than 30 percent of the national median annual income. Approximately 1,400 households within the Choctaw Nation's service area are overcrowded or lack a kitchen or plumbing. Of the households within the Choctaw Nation's service area, 1,939 households have a house-cost burden greater than 50 percent of their annual income.
‘In starkest terms, during the last fiscal year, the Choctaw Nation Housing Authority had a shortfall of 9,080 low-income units,’ Sossamon continued. ‘In sum, there is a severe housing shortage in our service area's tribal communities, resulting in overcrowded conditions. Many of the homes that do exist lack basic amenities that most Americans take for granted, such as full kitchens and plumbing, and even then, many of the existing homes are in need of substantial repairs.’
Sossamon pointed to the Section 184 Loan Guarantee Program created by the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992 as the primary federal product to address the lack of mortgage lending in Indian Country. However, he added that this HUD-administered program has seen its share of hiccups.
‘It should be noted that fewer than 20 percent of the Section 184 loans made to tribal members have been made on tribal trust or individual allotment land,’ he said. ‘More than half of the Section 184 loans have been made in Alaska and Oklahoma, and because of the unique non-reservation system of land tenure for most Indian and Alaska Native groups in those states, nearly all of those loans were made for homes on fee simple land rather than trust land.
‘In March of this year, HUD temporarily suspended the processing of new Section 184 loan applications because of an apparent exhaustion at the time of program funding for current fiscal year 2013,’ he added. ‘With the passage of the latest Continuing Resolution by Congress to fund the federal government through September of this year, funding for the Section 184 program, as well as the cap on the amount of loans that can be guaranteed under the program, were increased. As a result, HUD has stated that the suspension of the Section 184 program has been lifted, and the program should be back in working order sometime this month.’
However, the Section 184 program is not the only vehicle for encouraging tribal housing development. Two tribal leaders at the hearing spoke of vehicles that encouraged a greater degree of self sufficiency and less HUD input. Paul Iron Cloud, CEO of the Oglala Sioux (Lakota) Housing Authority at Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D., called to task the flaws within the federal Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA), which is also administered by HUD.
‘Sadly, in 2013, our housing – and tribal housing on many similarly situated reservations and Alaskan Native communities – is far worse today than 17 years ago,’ he said. ‘Though NAHASDA provides us and many other tribes and tribal housing entities valuable resources, because of stagnant and reduced funding levels as well as flawed funding allocation methods, we and a large number of other tribes today have the worst housing in the United States. NAHASDA funding levels limit us to building on average no more than 30 to 40 units a year, yet we currently need 4,000 new units and 1,000 homes repaired. The result is that we now have the most overcrowded housing in this country.’
Iron Cloud said that his tribal nation has joined with four other tribal housing programs to create the Dakota Housing Needs Assessment Pilot Project as a means of fixing the problems facing this demographic.
‘We will each conclude statistically accurate housing surveys later this spring on each of our reservations,’ he said. ‘The project is designed to improve tribal data and program management. It will also give each of us the ability to do the 'census challenges' that NAHASDA permits us to make under its block grant allocation formula. However, if results should prove out, we believe that this pilot project could have nationwide application and could change how housing need is determined on reservations and result in better allocation of federal tribal housing funds.’
Cheryl A. Causley, chairwoman of the National American Indian Housing Council, based in Sault Sainte Marie, Mich., advocated the value of Native Community Development Financial Institutions (Native CDFIs) to leverage resources for homeownership. The Native CDFIs are administered by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, not HUD, and Causley noted that these institutions ‘may also attract financial support from banks and other lenders and are especially conducive to tribal housing programs that seek focus on homeownership loans.’ Causley cited one of the tribal nations mentioned briefly by Boyd as a successful example of Native CDFI funding.
‘The Ho-Chunk Community Development Corp. (HCCDC) is an emerging CDFI and was formed by and partners with the Winnebago Tribe and its entities,’ she said. ‘A goal of HCCDC is to decrease substandard housing, increase housing opportunity, increase clients' ability to access housing and increase capital available locally. The Winnebago Reservation lacks affordable housing, and tribal members who are able to afford a mortgage are forced to live elsewhere. Other tribal members lack the funds for the initial down payment to purchase a home.
‘Using the Winnebago Tribe's other private subsidiary, Ho-Chunk Inc., the HCCDC and the Winnebago Tribe have worked together to develop a Housing Down Payment Assistance Program that provides a significant portion of a standard down payment for a new homeowner,’ she added.
‘The homeowner is required to go through a special financial and homeownership education course and must meet other criteria to qualify. In 2010, Ho-Chunk Inc. and the Winnebago Tribe authorized a $1 million Housing Stimulus Program to set aside Ho-Chunk Inc. dividends and other tax revenues to offer $50,000 in down payment assistance to up to 20 new homeowners who build a home on the Winnebago Reservation. Through these combined efforts, housing on their reservation is more affordable, and tribal members can start building the traditional wealth that other non-Native homeowners have gained.’