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"Housing America's Native People,"

by Wendy Helgemo November/December 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

The sun shines most days of the year on the adobe homes of a Pueblo outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Some have no running water. Some have foundation falling away, letting daylight in through the cracks. Some are bright, sprawling ramblers—all new construction.

A thunderstorm rolls in over a green valley in southeastern Montana. A modern, but modest, house stands across from a small church. It is made from straw bale technology and is heated by solar energy. Another home has cold wind blowing through plastic sheeting over where the glass window panes should be. An old wood burning stove is used for heat.

Each of these places someone calls home. While there is a supply of safe, sanitary and adequate housing stock in “Indian Country,” housing in Native American communities is still far more substandard than for the rest of the country. Things are changing, but some say Third World conditions exist right here in America.

Housing in Indian Country

After two centuries of U.S. federal policy, Indian Country is comparatively underdeveloped to an alarming degree. An estimated 200,000 housing units are needed immediately in Indian Country, and approximately 90,000 Native families are homeless or under-housed. Overcrowding on tribal lands is almost 15%, and 11% of Indian homes lack complete plumbing and kitchen facilities; less than half of all reservation homes are connected to a public sewer. Unemployment rates in Native American communities average 15%, and in some areas it is as high as 80%. Because most American Indian reservations and Alaska Native communities are in geographically remote and rural areas, building homes is an extremely costly endeavor and one reason for the high cost of housing development in Native communities. A well-built and maintained road system, housing, electricity, wastewater and land improvements all contribute the necessary foundation for economic growth, increased safety and improved quality of life for Native people.

Overview of Federal Housing Programs for Native Americans

What has become the leading source of capital for housing in Indian Country is the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA), the major federal law relating to Native American housing and community development. NAHASDA has opened the door for American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives to improve tribal capacity and increase tribal decision-making in the housing arena. NAHASDA also has enabled greater tribal participation in the development of federal regulations through the negotiated rule-making process and has spurred housing development through the leveraging of federal dollars.

Federal housing programs for American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians (“Native Americans”) are administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Within HUD, the Secretary, operating through the Office of Native American Programs (ONAP), carries out the United States’ trust responsibility to Indian tribes and Indian people by improving their housing conditions and socio-economic status.

Other federal programs in the Departments of Agriculture, Veterans Affairs, Health, and Interior also have components that serve tribal housing needs.

The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act
The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 (as amended, Pub. L. 104-330), as noted above, is the main source of legal authority under which the United States provides housing and housing-related programs for Native Americans. Enacted in 1996, NAHASDA combined scattered federal public housing programs into a consolidated block grant to better serve the unique needs of Native American communities. NAHASDA established the Indian Housing Block Grant (IHBG) to provide direct federal assistance to Indian tribes to carry out affordable housing activities. Prior to NAHASDA, tribes, through tribal housing authorities or departments, operated housing programs under the 1937 Housing Act, the first law in which Congress addressed the housing needs of low-income Americans. Notably, tribes had to wait until 1961 to become eligible for assistance and housing programs administered by HUD. Currently, almost 300 tribal housing authorities manage anywhere from a few hundred homes to thousands of homes in Indian Country.

The Indian Housing Block Grant
The Indian Housing Block Grant (IHBG) is the single largest source of capital made available by the United States for housing development, housing-related infrastructure, and home repair and maintenance in Indian Country. Since FY1998, more than $7 billion in federal housing assistance has been invested in Native American communities for purposes of making downpayments on homes, making monthly rents, helping with rehabilitation and building new housing units. Prior to NAHASDA implementation, an estimated 2,000 units a year were being built, whereas over 6,000 units were built in NAHASDA’s first year alone.

Indian Community Development Block Grant
The Indian Community Development Block Grant (ICDBG) is a direct grant program for community development in Indian and Alaska Native Communities. Community development includes decent housing, a suitable living environment and economic opportunities, primarily for low- and moderate-income persons. Eligible grantees are any Indian tribe, band, group or nation or Alaska Native village. Specifically, ICDBG funding can be used for housing (new construction and rehabilitation), community facilities and economic development. Ninety-five percent of the grant funds are awarded on a competitive basis. The remaining 5% is awarded on a non-competitive, first-come/first-served basis to eliminate problems that pose an imminent threat to public health or safety.

Title VI Tribal Housing Activities Loan Guarantee Program
The Title VI Tribal Housing Activities Loan Guarantee Program (Title VI) provides the backing of a federal guarantee on loans to Indian tribes from private lenders or investors. Title VI loans finance eligible affordable housing activities such as housing assistance, housing development, housing services, housing management services, crime prevention and safety activities, and model activities. Indian tribes pledge future IHBG funds as security for repayment of Title VI loan obligations.

An amendment to Title VI establishes in 2009 a demonstration program to guarantee the notes and obligations issued by Indian tribes to finance activities that are eligible for financing under the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, including economic development, housing rehabilitation, public facilities and large-scale physical development projects.

Section 184 Indian Housing Loan Guarantee Program
The Section 184 Indian Housing Loan Guarantee Program was established to serve the Native American homeownership market, which is underserved due to the trust status of Indian lands. Indian tribes and individual Native Americans are eligible for Section 184 loans. Loans can be for new construction, rehabilitation of an existing home and refinancing. The default rate is less than 1%.

Training and Technical Assistance
NAHASDA authorizes appropriations for assistance to a national organization representing Native American housing interests in order to provide training and technical assistance to Indian housing authorities and tribally designated housing entities. Tribal housing authorities rely on training and technical assistance to effectively implement their housing programs. Training and technical assistance has proven to be an effective and invaluable tool for capacity-building for tribes and their housing authorities.

Since the 1996 enactment of NAHASDA, the National American Indian Housing Council (NAIHC) has served as the lead training and technical assistance provider in Indian Country. For nearly 35 years, NAIHC has assisted tribes with their primary goal of providing housing and community development for Native American communities. NAIHC consists of 270 members, representing 463 tribes and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

This assistance has come in the form of on-site technical assistance; tuition-free training classes provided by housing professionals in the employ of NAIHC; scholarship programs that help offset the cost to tribal-designated housing entity employees to attend professional training sessions; and NAIHC’s Leadership Institute, a low-cost professional certification course for housing professionals who work in Indian housing development.

The Native American Veterans Home Loan Program
Within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Native American Veterans Home Loan Program serves eligible Native-American veterans who wish to purchase, improve or construct a home on tribal lands. VA direct loans are generally limited to the cost of the home, or the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation single-family conforming loan unit, whichever is less. The maximum loan amount may not exceed VA’s estimate of the reasonable value of the property to be purchased.

Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities
Within the Department of Health and Human Services, the Indian Health Service (IHS) Division of Sanitation Facilities Construction is charged with providing Native American homes and communities with essential water supply, sewage disposal and solid waste disposal facilities.

Housing development in Native American communities involves more than simply building dwelling units. Community development often starts with the design and construction of basic physical infrastructure and amenities that most Americans take for granted. This includes water and wastewater infrastructure, electricity, heat and cooling systems, and a host of other elements. Recurring challenges to the physical infrastructure issue involve access to capital and financing, conflicting statutory and regulatory provisions, and a need for comprehensive planning. Therefore, this IHS program is extremely taxed. Current appropriations language prevents IHS sanitation funds to be used in conjunction with NAHASDA funds to connect water and wastewater infrastructure to the new homes.

HUD Rural Housing and Economic Development
While not a specific Indian program, tribes are eligible to participate in HUD’s Rural Housing and Economic Development programs (RHED). RHED is another tool Native American Communities use to help build homes on isolated Indian lands. These programs serve to assist in capacity-building, fund innovative activities and provide support for new programs. Funds are awarded on a competitive basis. The maximum award under capacity-building is $150,000. The maximum amount awarded for housing development and economic development activities is $400,000.

USDA Rural Housing
Within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Rural Housing programs serve the housing needs of low-income and very low-income Americans, including Native Americans. Indian tribes can participate in the Direct Home Loan Program (Section 502) and the Rental Housing Direct Loan Program (Section 538). Section 502 loans are primarily used to help low-income individuals or households purchase homes in rural areas. Section 502 funds can be used to build, repair, renovate or relocate a home, or to purchase and prepare sites, including providing water and sewage facilities. Section 538 loans are for new rental housing and acquisition with rehabilitation of existing properties. The purpose of the Section 538 program is to increase the supply of affordable rural rental housing, through the use of loan guarantees that encourage partnerships between the Rural Development program, private lenders and public agencies. Indian tribes can use these programs for housing and related infrastructure development in conjunction with HUD and Bureau of Indian Affairs funding.

The Housing Improvement Program (HIP)
Within the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indians Affairs (BIA) is authorized to assist Indian tribes with housing improvement. In 1965, the Housing Improvement Program (HIP) was established pursuant to the Snyder Act of 1924 (25 U.S.C. §13) to provide grants of modest amounts (often not more than $1,500) for home rehabilitation, renovation and repair. As the waiting lists for new homes continue to grow and housing stock becomes older and dilapidated, HIP strives to ensure that existing housing stock remain safe, healthy and habitable. According to the BIA, HIP assists 375 Indian families annually. The HIP serves a valuable role in keeping existing housing stock in habitable conditions for the neediest within the Indian communities: Indian elders and low-income people.

Low-Income Housing Tax Credits

One way tribes can spur new housing development is through leveraging the IHBG. In 1986, the Congress changed the Internal Revenue Service Tax Code to encourage homeownership through the creation of low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC). Tribes can use IHBG funds for project-based or tenant-based rental assistance in LIHTC projects as an eligible affordable housing activity.

While word about LIHTC leveraging is getting around Indian Country, only a small number of tribes have undertaken LIHTC projects. Education and capacity-building of tribal housing authorities are key in increasing usage of the program. There is a clear need to increase the training opportunities for housing authorities in the area of LIHTC program development. This will open up more doors to opportunities to work with investors, program developers, compliance experts and consultants, and state Housing Finance Agencies and Housing Departments.

Financial Education

Tribal economies can be strengthened through increased financial education programs and through the development and promotion of asset-building rather than asset-stripping in Native communities. Since access to capital is an ongoing obstacle to housing and community development in Indian Country, the pervasiveness and impact of predatory lending in all its iterations has destructive consequences in Native communities. Development of credit programs and increasing borrowing opportunities through Tribal Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) will reduce the demand for predatory lending in tribal communities. Financial education is also a key to combating predatory lending and needs to be culturally-specific and tailored to Native communities. Asset development, including tribal Individual Development Accounts and other forms of matched savings accounts, should be emphasized to change the landscape from asset-stripping to asset-building.

Recommendations for a New Congress and Administration

  • Restore the focus of federal housing and housing-related programs and services to one respecting the hallmark of Indian Self-Determination;

  • Ensure meaningful consultation with tribal governments and housing authorities in advance of the development of relevant regulations and policies;

  • Restore to the federal agencies an appropriate role in terms of oversight and monitoring of tribal housing programs and services;

  • Re-institute a vigorous negotiated rule-making procedure with tribal governments and housing authorities so that the impacts and consequences of proposed federal actions can be fully debated and agreed to prior to implementation;

  • Improve housing development and leveraging capacity within Indian Housing Authorities, as distinguished from simply improving housing management skills according to federal guidelines;

  • Increase federal funding levels for Native American housing, with a particular emphasis on achieving parity with jurisdictions of comparable size;

  • Assist Indian tribes in the construction and maintenance of physical infrastructure, including methods of financing similar to those available to state and local governments;

  • Ameliorate high energy and other costs of construction due in large part to isolated locations;

  • Improve eGrant submission issues, particularly at HUD, as the current system negatively impacts tribal communities;

  • Collaborate with tribal governments and housing authorities to initiate and develop comprehensive and effective risk management and other self-insurance programs and services related to Native American housing and related assets and property;

  • Ensure a Native presence at White House and Cabinet-level positions —e.g., HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Indian Housing and Community Development.


America’s First Americans—Native Americans—have been experiencing their own housing and economic crises since the era of Treaty-making and have an immediate need for culturally-relevant, decent, safe, sanitary and affordable housing. The lack of significant private investment, functioning housing markets and the dire economic conditions most Indian communities face mean that federal dollars make up a significant amount of total housing resources for Native people. We must continue to work to improve housing conditions in Indian Country by deconstructing remaining barriers to Indian tribes which endeavor to develop their communities and economies and improve the lives of their People.

Wendy Helgemo is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, a federally-recognized Indian tribe in Wisconsin. He has served as the Director of Governmental Affairs at the National American Indian Housing Council in Washington, DC since 2006.

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