American Indians and Alaska Natives have faced numerous obstacles when it comes to accessing adequate housing, such as high poverty rates, overcrowding, lack of plumbing and heat, and unique development issues. These challenges are rooted in historical injustices, discriminatory policies, and ongoing economic disparities. Many Native communities continue to struggle with substandard living conditions, overcrowding, and homelessness.
One of the main obstacles is a lack of funding, particularly in more rural areas. The federal government is responsible for providing funding for housing programs on tribal lands, but this funding has historically been insufficient. Native communities have had to rely on substandard housing options, including overcrowded and dilapidated homes.
The remote regions of the Plains, Alaska, and the Southwest experience additional barriers due to their limited access to employment and development resources. Data sources for nearly all federal housing resources undercount their tribal populations, leading to less funding for crucial housing programs.
Forty percent of on-reservation housing is considered substandard (compared to 6 percent outside of Indian Country) and more than a third of Native families in tribal lands live in homes that are overcrowded or lack basic amenities, such as plumbing, a refrigerator, or heating. Doubling up to prevent homelessness is common in tribal lands, often leading to overcrowding. Almost every Native community reports overcrowding as an issue. Nearly 16 percent of households across tribal lands live in overcrowded conditions, compared to 2.2 percent nationally.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, families in tribal lands are nearly five times more likely to live in poor housing conditions compared to the general population. They are also five times more likely to live in homes that lack basic plumbing, four times more likely to live in homes without a sink, range, or refrigerator, and 1,200 times more likely to live in homes with heating issues.
In some areas, up to 50 percent of Native homes are without phone service. Additionally, 23 percent of Native households pay 30 percent or more of household income for housing.
High development costs and limited infrastructure can be barriers to building affordable homes. Infrastructure for sewage, gas, electricity, and highways can be limited on tribal lands, especially in more remote regions. Some 70 percent of tribal governments identify infrastructure costs as a major barrier to further development.
Native households only have 8 cents of wealth for every dollar that the average white American household has, according to a study from 2000 — the last year Native wealth was measured systematically. Due to high poverty rates, Native people living on tribal lands have fewer resources to meet their housing needs.
One-third (32 percent) of Native households on tribal lands live in poverty, compared to 18 percent of households nationwide. Tribal lands in the Plains, a rural region, have an especially high poverty rate of 41 percent. In 2015, the annual median household income among American Indians and Alaska Natives was $37,4081, or 33 percent, less than the national median income and 15 percent lower than households in non-metro areas.
Another obstacle is the complex legal and regulatory environment surrounding housing on tribal lands. The federal government has a unique relationship with Native tribes, and this relationship has led to a complex web of laws and regulations that can be difficult to navigate. This complexity often leads to delays in housing projects and can make it difficult for Native people to access the resources they need to build safe and affordable homes.
Resolutions to these challenges include increased funding for housing programs, streamlined regulatory processes, and greater collaboration between federal agencies and tribal governments. Additionally, there are several community-based initiatives that have shown promise in improving access to housing for Native people.
One such initiative is the use of “sweat equity” programs, where community members contribute their own labor to build homes. These programs not only help to reduce the cost of construction but also promote a sense of ownership and community involvement. Another promising approach is the use of renewable energy technologies to power homes. By reducing energy costs, these technologies can make it easier for Native people to afford housing and improve their overall quality of life.
The Indian Housing Block Grant, Indian Community Block Grant, and Indian Home Loan Guarantee Program provide critical funding to empower tribes to develop, implement, and manage strategies to meet the specific housing needs of their communities more effectively. These policies have provided funding to develop innovative housing strategies that support tribes as they construct and maintain housing for low-income families and promote homeownership.
The Indian Housing Block Grant Program is a formula grant that provides a range of affordable housing activities on Indian reservations and Indian areas. The block grant approach to housing for Native Americans was enabled by the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act of 1996. The Indian Community Block Grant Program provides eligible grantees with direct grants for use in developing viable Native communities, including decent housing, a suitable living environment, and economic opportunities, primarily for low and moderate income persons.
The Indian Home Loan Guarantee Program, provides low-interest rate loans to eligible Native American borrowers living in tribal lands or designated service areas. The program is designed to help Native people achieve homeownership by providing access to affordable financing options while also promoting economic development on tribal lands. It is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is available to both first-time homebuyers and those who have previously owned homes.
The U.S. Department of Housing’s Good Neighbor Next Door Program is another program that aids Native people with low to moderate income with home ownership. This program offers a significant discount on the purchase of a home in specific revitalization areas to teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians. It is designed to promote community development while also making homes more affordable for Native people in low to moderate-income brackets.
Ultimately, addressing the obstacles to housing access for Native people will require a multifaceted approach that involves increased funding, streamlined regulations, and community-based initiatives. By working together, tribal governments, federal agencies, and community organizations can help to ensure that all Native people have access to safe, affordable housing.
According to the Census Bureau, in 2016, just 52.9 percent of all Native people were homeowners, down from 55.5 percent in 2000. Yet in tribal areas, 75 percent report a strong desire to own their home.
The Tribal Leaders Handbook on Homeownership provides a comprehensive guide to creating diverse housing choices for Native communities and to understanding the lending process in Indian Country. It explains the mortgage lending process, addresses challenges to homeownership on trust lands, and includes “best practice” case studies that show how tribes overcame those obstacles through innovation and perseverance to create homeownership in their communities.
The Center for Indian Country Development and the National Native Homeownership Coalition have also launched the Native Housing and Homeownership Resource Clearinghouse, giving Indian Country tools to advance real change. Supplementing the Tribal Leaders Handbook on Homeownership, the Clearinghouse provides essential information on successful homeownership programs across Indian Country as well as loan programs, mortgage documents, tribal laws, videos and webinars.