The Problem With HUD’s Indian Housing Policy


new-PhilHOn February 18, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) scooped out its annual serving of money as part of the Indian Housing Block Grant (IHBG) initiative. This year, more than $651 million was distributed to 586 tribes across 34 states.

HUD issued a press release that described the program using this language: “Eligible activities for the funds include housing development, assistance to housing developed under the Indian Housing Program of the 1937 Housing Act, housing services to eligible families and individuals, housing management services, crime prevention and safety, and model activities that provide creative approaches to solving affordable housing problems. The block grant approach to housing was enabled by the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA).”

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The same press release offered this quote from HUD Secretary Julián Castro: “Our nation is at its best when everyone has a fair chance to thrive. These funds will support the innovative work Native American tribes and families are doing to build a more prosperous future. Our partnership with these local leaders today will create better housing opportunities, more robust economic development and stronger communities tomorrow.”

Okay, so let’s try to make sense of this. Federal assistance for tribal housing stretches back to the 1937 Housing Act, and the block program has been around since NAHASDA became law in 1996, but Secretary Castro is talking about creating better housing opportunities on tribal lands for tomorrow? What’s wrong with this picture? After all of this time and all of the money poured into Indian housing, shouldn’t this sector of the economy be able to stand on its own feet by now without continued federal aid?

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The central problem here is poverty and limited economic opportunities for the residents of tribal lands. According to the various data sources that track this demographic, more than 25 percent of American Indians are living in poverty and only 61.6 percent of native adults are either part of the workforce or are actively looking for employment. As of the third quarter of 2014, American Indian unemployment was at 11 percent – the national rate was 6.2 percent.

And why is this situation so horrendous? Last year, Shawn Regan, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, published an article in Forbes to detail why this situation is so acute. Regan identified five key reasons why American Indians are lagging so far behind other sectors of the population: Indian lands are owned and managed by the federal government, which is no one’s idea of a good property manager; nearly all aspects of economic development on tribal lands fall under Uncle Sam’s control; the tribal lands operate under complex legal systems (created by Washington) that hinder growth, especially independent economic development; Washington has a long history of mismanaging native funds; and, in areas where energy development could bring in riches, the federal government has done everything possible to prevent such development from occurring.

Regan might have included a sixth problem: federal laws prevent Native Americans from easily pursuing the American Dream. Because much of the land in Indian Country is held in trust by the federal government, tribes have no right to sell the land they live on. This prevents traditional mortgage lending on Indian reservations. Furthermore, if the property is held in trust, the tribe must issue a 50-year lease to its member seeking to build a home – but only after getting the approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The home and the leasehold interest are then mortgaged, but the land must remain in trust for the tribe.

Yeah, can you imagine if the government tried to pull those housing laws in predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhoods? This grossly unfair situation is only allowed to take place on tribal lands. Thus, traditional homeownership on tribal lands is less common while government-funding handouts are par for the course.

But those handouts are hardly generous. And despite Secretary Castro’s cheery insistence on a better day tomorrow, many tribes have become fed up with the lack of progress today. Two years ago, Paul Iron Cloud, CEO of the Oglala Sioux (Lakota) Housing Authority at Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D., offered a stark view of NAHASDA’s failings before a Senate hearing.

“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.”

Instead of the annual ceremony of dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into a system that is not making life better for the nation’s poorest demographic, maybe it is time to step back, get out the toolbox and start to build a better way for American Indians to share in the benefits of homeownership. IHBG and NAHASDA are not making this situation better – in fact, they have taken a travesty and prolonged it into a travesty.

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