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Native American Housing: Building Capacity and Leveraging Resources To Create Opportunity

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Native American Housing: Building Capacity and Leveraging Resources To Create Opportunity

Photograph of panelist Carol Gore speaking at a podium while moderator Roger Boyd, deputy assistant secretary of HUD’s Office of Native American Programs, and panelists Kevin Klingbeil and Nancy Pindus sit at a table onstage.
Panelist Carol Gore, president and CEO of the Cook Inlet Housing Authority, joined onstage by moderator Roger Boyd and panelists Kevin Klingbeil and Nancy Pindus, speaks about the importance of the self-determination framework for Native American housing assistance at PD&R’s quarterly update on March 24, 2015.

Native Americans face daunting housing challenges rooted in historical injustices, a complicated legal structure governing land ownership and real estate transactions, the often remote and rural locations of tribal lands, and, in some cases, poor economic conditions. The federal government has a trust obligation to improve housing conditions in Indian Country based on treaties and federal law. The guiding framework for fulfilling this obligation is that of self-determination; the federal government provides funding but allows tribes to decide how best to address their housing needs. The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) codified this approach in 1996.

At the HUD Office of Policy Development and Research’s (PD&R’s) quarterly update on March 24, 2015, moderator Rodger Boyd and panelists Nancy Pindus, Kevin Klingbeil, and Carol Gore discussed how collecting data, capacity building, and leveraging resources through self-determination can help meet housing needs and improve housing conditions — and, by extension, expand opportunity — for Native Americans.

Native American Housing Needs

The most recent national comprehensive assessment of Native American housing needs was in 1996. PD&R is currently managing an updated assessment, conducted by the Urban Institute and other subcontractors, that promises to be the most complete national housing survey of American Indians and Alaska Natives on tribal lands to date. An interim report, Continuity and Change: Demographic, Socioeconomic, and Housing Conditions of American Indians and Alaska Natives, was released in 2014.

The national study is an important step toward a better understanding of Native Americans’ housing needs, a chance to evaluate if and how those needs have changed since the passage of NAHASDA, and a starting point for improving housing and economic conditions. Pindus cautioned, however, that the study’s sampling methodology does not offer detailed information about the needs of any one tribe. She noted that tribes will need to build their capacity to conduct their own local assessments.

Data and Capacity Building

This capacity for data collection is a critical aspect of self-determination, because, as Klingbeil said, it means “not having to rely on another government, another entity, to give you the data that describes your people and your resources and tells your story.” He pointed to the Dakota Housing Needs Assessment Pilot Project as an example of data capacity building among tribes. The pilot project, an initiative of five tribes in North and South Dakota, started as a challenge to census data that the tribes believed was inaccurate but evolved into a broader effort to develop data collection, analysis, and utilization capacities for needs assessments and other uses. Through the project, tribal members have gained skills such as integrating data from multiple sources and utilizing geographic information systems.

Klingbeil noted that such capacity building does not happen overnight; rather, it requires substantial investment and training. The payoff, however, can be significant. Enhanced data capacity allow tribes to check the accuracy of federal or other data collection, understand tribal needs, and more effectively administer programs.

Self-Determination and Leveraging Dollars

The self-determination framework allows tribes the flexibility to meet needs specific to their contexts. Gore underscored how vital this flexibility is for the Cook Inlet Housing Authority given Alaska’s unique characteristics; the state is large, remote, and diverse in culture, topography, climate, and housing conditions. Housing quality and quantity problems in Alaska’s tribal areas are much worse than in many other regions; 54 percent of Alaska Native households experience one or more housing problems such as overcrowding, incomplete bathroom or kitchen facilities, or cost burdens.

Cook Inlet Housing Authority has built substantially more housing units since NAHASDA’s implementation, completing 1,778 units between 1998 and 2014 compared with 811 between 1974 and 1997. Although other factors may partially explain this increase, such as the temporary infusion of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds in 2009, Gore credited the ability to leverage NAHASDA funds to catalyze construction. She highlighted the example of Eklutna Estates, an elder rental housing development, in which Cook Inlet Housing Authority combined NAHASDA and ARRA funds with several other sources. As a result, they were able to build 59 units instead of eight.

More Than Housing

“Our goal was to do more than just build housing,” Gore concluded. “[W]e wanted to catalyze better and safer communities with [positive] educational and economic outcomes.” Similarly, the other panelists spoke of goals beyond data collection and capacity building, each of which ultimately serves a loftier purpose: to improve the life chances and opportunities of Native Americans. Ideally, better data will lead to better housing conditions, which in turn will lead to better life outcomes.

Limited resources will make achieving these outcomes particularly challenging. Gore pointed out that congressional funding of NAHASDA has failed to keep up with the rate of inflation. And despite its many benefits, Congress has yet to reauthorize NAHASDA, which expired in 2013. Funding is disproportionate to need, a circumstance Klingbeil likened to “fixing your brakes partially on a regular basis.” These limitations notwithstanding, building tribal capacity and leveraging resources are essential for making the most of the NAHASDA funding that is available to create opportunity for Native American communities.

Rodger M. Boyd, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Native American Programs
Carol Gore, President and CEO, Cook Inlet Housing Authority, Anchorage
Kevin Klingbeil, Managing Director, Big Water Consulting, Seattle
Nancy M. Pindus, Senior Fellow, Urban Institute

Published Date: April 21, 2015

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.