Broken windows, frequent reports of black mold and bed bugs, discarded tires as makeshift roofing, and more than a dozen people crammed together in a crumbling two-bedroom home.
Such housing conditions in Indian country were uncovered last year by the Great Falls Tribune, which noted a housing shortage that “has lingered on U.S. Indian reservations for nearly a century.” As the Executive Director of an organization that has worked to address such issues since 1971, occasional reports of horrific conditions in Indian country are, sadly, not surprising. Such reports are frustrating because we know what works: sustained funding of federal housing programs that meet the unique needs of sovereign Indian nations.
The first and most important step to addressing such conditions whether in Blackfeet Nation, Turtle Mountain, Navajo Country or elsewhere starts with Congress. The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) of 1996 reduced regulations and allowed Indian tribes to determine the best use of block grants, an important nod to Indian self-determination and tribal self-governance. But NAHASDA’s authorization expired in 2013; each year since it has continued, but with funding ill-matched for growing needs. The program needs reauthorization by Congress, which would bring forth stability, when coupled with adequate resources.
Reauthorization of NAHSDA without adequate funding would be hollow. Federal funds for Indian housing have been virtually frozen for the past 20 years. Adjusted for inflation, NAHASDA has essentially been cut by 33 percent, despite a steady stream of reports including HUD’s 2017 “Housing Needs Assessment” quantifying deep poverty, and a corresponding lack of plumbing, heating and electrical problems as all too typical for American Indians. What’s more, the Trump administration’s proposed budget would cut block grants for Native American housing by $150 million – more than 20 percent. When combined with proposed deep cuts to programs in the United States Department of Agriculture and elsewhere that help bring basic services to rural and tribal areas, such a decrease would not only lead to more years of substandard conditions. The cuts would thwart economic development and increased self-sufficiency for tribes and populations already struggling to make ends meet.
Estimates vary for Native Americans’ needs for new and rehabilitated housing, but, over the past decade-and-a-half, surveys agreed about the severity of the challenge. In a conservative estimate, the HUD report found that roughly 68,000 new housing units are needed to reduce overcrowding and replace severely deteriorated housing in tribal areas.
In an even more far-reaching finding, the National American Indian Housing Council and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights have both reported that waiting lists from the Indian housing authorities have totaled at least 200,000 since the beginning of the last decade. This is typical of how Indian tribes are struggling to stretch dwindling funds to maintain adequate housing stock.
The need is urgent even if visitors to Indian country don’t see people sleeping outdoors in the cold. Famously family-oriented, Native Americans don’t slam their doors shut on their relatives. Instead of suffering homelessness, Native Americans endure overcrowding, doubling, tripling or quadrupling up. Thus, the HUD survey found that between 42,000 and 85,000 Native Americans were living in crowded conditions with friends or relatives because they had nowhere else to go.
NAHASDA deserves realistic funding because it addresses Native Americans’ needs and enables them to determine their own destinies. NAHASDA needs champions in Congress and the Executive branch, including the new secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, who has recommended Congress reauthorize this urgently needed program. When renewed with realistic funding, NAHASDA will tap the extraordinary resilience and decency of our native communities.
Further delays are not only unacceptable, they are inexcusable.
Moises Loza is Executive Director of the Housing Assistance Council, a national nonprofit focused on housing for the rural poor—especially in the most challenged communities.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.