Last week, NHC hosted the fifth webinar in our series sponsored by NeighborWorks America. This webinar focused on Native American housing and was titled The State of Native Housing: Programs, Policy, and Practices on Tribal Lands. Most of us know that Tribal lands and communities have suffered from historic disinvestment. According to HUD, Indian Country needs 33,000 more units to alleviate overcrowding and 35,000 new units to replace physically inadequate ones.
Not only do we have the opportunity to invest in these communities, but we also have an obligation. It is a simple truth that we need to do more to invest in these communities, and there is a substantial opportunity today for meaningful housing and community development investment in and around Tribal lands.
Mellor Willie, NeighborWorks’ Director of Native Partnerships and Strategy, moderated the webinar. Mellor offered an overview of what Native Housing looks like today, what the needs are, and the challenges to consider. He spoke about the need to strengthen data collection to better understand homeownership, homelessness, and social services, as well as the incredible value of collaboration and coalition building to advocate for the needs of tribal communities.
Panelists featured were Libby Starling, a director in the Community Development Center for the Indian Country Development Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Jackie Pata, president and CEO of the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority, Pete Upton, executive director of Native360 Loan Fund and chairperson/interim executive director of the Native CDFI Network, and Fern Orie, Chief Programs Officer and Executive Vice President of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships for the Oweesta Corporation.
Hearing From Experienced Voices on Tribal Housing Challenges and Solutions
Jackie Pata spoke about the success of locally built homes throughout the Tlingit-Haida region to help renters become homeowners. Like many areas today, the region is in dire need of more affordable housing.
“Ultimately, we wanted more houses, and there hadn’t been any new houses built in our communities in 20 years,” she said. “In our long-term sustainability plan, it makes sense for us to promote homeownership.” Instead of hiring large contractors, the housing authority created local crews to build homes within the community and create jobs in the process.
Libby Starling spoke to the challenges of trust and title for land across Indian Country. Lands in trust cannot be sold without the consent of the federal government, and clearing titles can cause delays of up to one year for people trying to secure a mortgage. She also noted the power of having a Native community development financial institution (CDFI) in or near a reservation, with research showing that the presence of a Native CDFI boosts credit scores for the community.
“So if you imagine one thousand residents, adding in one Native CDFI staff person per those one thousand residents, has a 45 point increase in credit scores for residents who are living on or close to Indian land,” Starling said.
Fern Orie offered an outline of how Oweesta Corporation, the first Native organization to become a HUD counseling intermediary, has been able to support housing development and secondary mortgage access. Through training and technical assistance, lending and capitalization, and research and policy advocacy, they have helped build stronger, self-sufficient communities.
Pete Upton spoke of the opportunities for Native CDFIs moving forward and the importance of advocacy and having Native voices at the table. “Our goal this year was to get more Native voices at these tables so that they can really get a sense of what is needed in Indian Country and to have Native issues being resolved and at least having Native Americans in that process of finding some of these solutions.”
Finally, panelists often emphasized the importance of recognizing the diverse needs and sovereignty of individual tribes. As policymakers, it is imperative to recognize and listen to those with lived experience so that policy actually translates to the people it’s meant to serve. Several times the speakers reminded us of the distinct cultures, languages, and governance systems of the vast array of Tribes across the country.
The Indian Housing Block Grant, the Indian Community Development Block Grant Program, the Section 184 Indian Home Loan Guarantee Program, and parts of the Community Reinvestment Act can help to overcome some of the funding barriers Native communities face. But we know that funding alone, while vital, is not enough. It takes the work of experts, like those we heard from on this panel, to successfully and equitably administer such programs and make meaningful differences in Native communities.