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Housing Research with Tribes

PD&R at 50
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Housing Research with Tribes

Todd Richardson (at PD&R from 1991 to 1997 and 2000 to present)

A collage of different publications on the subject of Native American and indigenous housing.
Supporting research on the housing needs and programs of Native American communities is an important way that PD&R contributes to HUD's work with tribes.

In my office on the eighth floor of the Robert C. Weaver Federal Office Building in Washington, D.C., is a stack of reports collected over the years highlighting research on the unique housing challenges facing Native Americans, particularly those in tribal areas. The work to address these housing challenges involves not just HUD but also the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) within the U.S. Department of the Interior, which runs a housing program and is responsible for the land trust; the Indian Health Service (IHS), which sometimes provides water and sewer infrastructure for homes and communities in tribal areas; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which also offers housing programs, among other agencies. Over time, some agencies have contributed more to this body of research than others. BIA, the General Accounting Office, and the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) produced some of the best studies in these early years, and the Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) has supported three major research efforts since 1990.

In the 1980s, HAC conducted considerable research, some of it supported by PD&R, including a comprehensive history of housing programs for Native Americans from 1937 to 1988. This particular account sets the stage for PD&R’s work, which began in earnest in the 1990s and is what I draw on below for the pre-1988 history.

PD&R has contributed to HUD’s work with tribes in three important ways: it has sponsored research on housing needs and programs, funded studies on housing technology, and supported the development of allocation formulas. This article examines these efforts by the federal government and HUD to work with tribes to improve housing conditions in tribal areas during three distinct periods:

  • 1961 to 1970s. Up until 1961, the federal government had effectively overlooked housing needs on reservation lands. In 1961, a task force appointed by then-Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior Stewart Udall documented the lack of housing assistance in tribal lands and recommended that BIA and a HUD predecessor agency, the Public Housing Administration within the Home Housing Finance Agency, fill that gap. Through the Public Housing Administration, HUD assumed a new role in 1961 to improve housing in tribal areas.

    The extent of Native Americans’ housing needs in reservation areas was startling. In 1970, BIA Consolidated Annual Housing Inventory data revealed that 63,000 of the 90,000 tribal area homes for which the bureau had information were substandard, and by 1976, the number of substandard units rose to 83,000 as tribal populations in reservations spiked.

    During these early years, HUD assisted tribes with setting up Indian Housing Authorities to run low-rent (public housing) and mutual housing (homeowner) programs similar to those that public housing agencies ran outside of tribal lands.

    This period largely predated PD&R’s creation in 1973.

  • 1970s to 1996. In 1974, HUD established special Field Offices focusing specifically on Indian housing. In 1974, HUD created the Indian Community Development Block Grant program, followed in 1976 by the development of comprehensive Indian housing regulations as well as updated agreements with BIA and IHS, which needed to be involved in every development project. In 1978, HUD established a permanent Office of Indian Housing in Washington, D.C., and in 1980, a HUD reorganization established six Indian Program Field Offices in HUD regions.

  • The earliest PD&R-sponsored research on tribal areas that I can find focused on building technology. In 1982, PD&R published “An Analysis of the Feasibility of Utilizing Factory-Built and Other Appropriate Types of Housing for Indians and Alaska Natives.” This study was likely an outgrowth of the work PD&R had been doing under Operation Breakthrough.

    In 1994, HUD’s Office of Native American Programs (ONAP) partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy to develop culturally appropriate and energy-efficient housing designs. This work included a guide to improving energy efficiency in tribal housing that was a companion to a document on culturally sensitive architectural design for affordable housing.

    PD&R’s first large study of Native American housing needs began in the early 1990s. That work built on the work of the National Commission on American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Housing, which was established in 1989 through the HUD Reform Act of 1989. The commission submitted its final report to Congress in August 1992, with a supplemental report in 1993. These reports are available on the HUD User website:

    I was involved with the PD&R research that supplemented the commission’s work in the mid-1990s, with an assessment of Native American housing needs. In 1996, HUD published the following two reports:

    The work of the National Commission on American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Housing and the PD&R research both supported the need for a new approach to addressing the housing needs in tribal areas, an approach that was funded by the federal government but designed, managed, and directed by individual tribes. Congress turned these recommendations into reality with the passage of the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA).

  • 1996 to present. October 26, 1996, was a watershed day in defining the way the federal government works with tribes. On that day, President Clinton signed NAHASDA into law, which shifted decisionmaking on federal housing investments from federal officials to the tribes through the use of the new Indian Housing Block Grant.

  • Consistent with the self-determination aspect of NAHASDA was the development of NAHASDA’s regulations through negotiated rulemaking with the tribes and HUD; those negotiations required consensus among all parties. Other PD&R Edge articles have discussed PD&R’s role in those negotiations, primarily with the development of the Indian Housing Block Grant formula:

    Fifteen years after the passage of NAHASDA, PD&R began work on a post-NAHASDA study of Native American housing needs. This study was even larger than the mid-1990s study and incorporated extensive consultation with tribal leaders. The study generated five reports over the course of 5 years:

    This post-NAHASDA research revealed that tribes were effectively using the housing resources that NAHASDA provided but also showed that housing needs in many tribal areas were still severe. Physically deficient housing is rare outside of tribal areas but remains a significant problem within them. The reports also noted that funding for NAHASDA had not kept up with inflation, and over time, NAHASDA’s grants to tribes were increasingly needed for the operation and maintenance of existing housing inventory rather than for developing badly needed new housing. Congress has acted to boost funding in tribal areas since these reports were published.

    At approximately the same time as the post-NAHASDA housing needs study, PD&R, in partnership with ONAP, was supporting the Sustainable Construction in Indian Country initiative, which ran from 2011 to 2013. This congressionally mandated effort promoted and supported “sustainable construction practices in Native communities, helping tribes provide their members with healthier, more comfortable, and more resource-efficient homes.” The initiative’s research remains a popular resource on the HUD User website, which notes:

    “This initiative was comprised of several interrelated activities. HUD, other federal agencies, and key stakeholders worked to identify and overcome barriers to the adoption of sustainable construction practices in Indian Country. Participating tribes also received technical assistance to support their adoption of sustainable construction practices in residential construction or rehabilitation projects, and HUD provided training on sustainable construction practices.”

In addition to their work with ONAP to implement NAHASDA and their continued support of ONAP with updated data, PD&R staff often consult with other federal agencies that are tasked with new programs to serve tribes. This assistance includes support for the U.S. Department of the Treasury on its allocation of payments from the Coronavirus Relief Fund and for the U.S. Department of Energy to provide rebates for energy-efficient appliances in tribal areas under the Inflation Reduction Act.

Comptroller General of the United States, U.S. General Accounting Office. 1978. “Substandard Indian Housing Increases Despite Federal Efforts — A Change Is Needed.” Accessed 30 November 2023. ×

I can recall flying from a grass airfield on the Navajo Nation to Phoenix, Arizona, in the cargo area of a two-seater airplane piloted by the ONAP regional director as part of some fieldwork we were doing for this study! ×

Published Date: 5 December 2023

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.