American Spirit: Native Americans longstanding housing issues need to be addressed with better federal policies

According to the National Congress of American Indians, forty percent of on-reservation housing is considered substandard and nearly one-third of homes on reservations are overcrowded


                            American Spirit: Native Americans longstanding housing issues need to be addressed with better federal policies
Taos Pueblo in Taos, New Mexico, home to Native-Americans for more than one thousand years (Getty Images)

American Spirit is a campaign on the issues faced by the Native American Community in America. Over the week, this column will feature stories of determination, triumph, legacy and redemption

During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Native Americans are one of the most at-risk groups in the United States for getting infected by the Covid-19 virus. Issues that have long plagued the Native American community contribute to this, including overcrowded housing and inadequate healthcare. Housing has long been a point of contention for Native Americans due to high poverty rates that in turn stem from employment issues. There are over 90,000 under-housed or homeless Native Americans, with over 30 percent of Native American housing being overcrowded and inadequate according to a 2003 report by the US Commission on Civil Rights. Living conditions have been compared to those in "third world" countries according to a 2004 report by Gallup Independent.

A Harvard study from 2019 reported that Native Americans faced discriminatory experiences according to the neighborhoods they lived in. Native Americans who reported living in predominantly Native American areas had higher odds of reporting greater institutional discrimination overall, compared to those living in areas that were not predominantly Native American. This was attributed to related research showing that as the size of an ethnic minority population increases, attitudes from white people become more biased against them.

According to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), forty percent of on-reservation housing is considered substandard (compared to 6 percent outside Indian Country) and nearly one-third of homes on reservations are overcrowded. The waiting list for tribal housing is long, with the waiting period often going longer than three years. Most families do not turn away family members or anyone who would need a place to stay -- often, three or more generations live in one house that may not have enough space for everyone. Further, less than half of the homes on reservations are connected to public sewer systems and 16 percent lack indoor plumbing. Utilities such as running water, telephones and electricity are often viewed as luxuries compared to food and transportation.

A 2016 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that housing conditions for Native American households are substantially worse than for other US households. Housing conditions vary widely across tribal lands; in Alaska, overcrowding is more than twice the rate for tribal areas overall, with 36 percent of households having incomplete plumbing or incomplete kitchens. In the North Central region and in the Pacific Northwest, one-quarter of households were cost-burdened compared with 12 percent of households in the Arizona/New Mexico region.

The Indian Housing Program Grant from HUD has been one of the ways in which Native Americans' housing issues are being addressed. The program grants funds that may be used to develop, maintain, and operate affordable housing in safe and healthy environments on Native American reservations and in other Native American areas, and carry out other affordable housing activities. The Native American Housing Block Grant, Indian Community Block Grant, and Indian Housing Loan Guarantee Fund provide critical funding to empower tribes to more effectively develop, implement, and manage strategies to meet the specific housing needs of their communities. 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. However, it is not without its problems. 

Some of the challenges faced by the program include the remoteness and limited human resources of the Native American communities that are meant to be served, the lack of suitable land and the severity of the climate and the difficulty contractors and the programs face in complying with statutory requirements to give hiring preference to Native Americans. The remoteness of many of the tribal areas also increases the cost of transporting the supplies, raises labor costs and reduces the availability of supplies and of an “institutional infrastructure” of developers and governmental and private entities.

It is clear that more needs to be done to address the reparations stemming from centuries of displacement of Native American communities by European settlers. Efforts to improve housing must address the shortcomings of programs so far and lawmakers must make efforts to reexamine current processes while promoting environmental justice and equitable recovery policies for Native American communities. Programs that are funded in Native American country must be enacted under tribal sovereignty and self-determination. 

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