What is the #1 Barrier to Affordable Housing in Indian Country?

   By Joshua Arce

Every day brings more news about the affordable housing crisis in the United States. But what does that really mean for families? Demand exceeds supply for housing, and the gap between wages and housing costs is widening. This is especially true for low earners and rent-burdened families (spending 30% or more income on rent). On top of that, high interest rates, rising prices for everything, and slow salary growth make keeping up hard. So, many Americans are now experiencing the housing instability that Native families have faced for decades on the reservations. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

For Tribal communities, the long-standing housing shortage is deeply rooted in oppressive U.S. policies and systems. It all started with colonization, forced relocation, and failed attempts to assimilate Tribal communities. The result? A loss of traditional lands and resources, inadequate infrastructure, and overcrowded housing (9% of the Native population versus 3% nationwide).

The Shortage of Affordable Housing on Reservations

Today, there is a deficit of at least 68,000 Indian housing units per year …but federal aid for under 2,000. Despite agencies like HUD and the BIA, federal funding fails to close the gap for affordable housing in Indian Country. Meanwhile, Native American Elders and families report the wait list for Tribal housing assistance is 3 years or more. Some people pass away long before ever getting a safe home.

# 1 barrier to affordable housing in Indian Country

Perhaps the #1 barrier to affordable housing is that Indian lands are not wholly owned by tribes or their citizens. Rather, the U.S. government holds them in trust. Native families then receive land allotments from these “trust lands” for personal use, or Native and non-Native farmers/ranchers lease them. Trust lands often delay or deter the ability to secure home loans, build new homes, create equity, and attract outside investment for jobs, wealth creation, and regenerative economies. So why, at this point, would the U.S. government control the land and not sign it over to the tribes? This step alone would ease the complications of housing investment on Native lands.

A close second barrier to Native housing is infrastructure, such as roads, electricity, water, sewer systems, telephone, internet, heating, and emergency services. About 48% of reservation homes lack access to clean, running water. Roughly 40% of Native Americans live in substandard, overcrowded housing. About 22.5% of reservation homes lack internet access. And the list goes on…

Homeownership is More than Shelter

In the big picture, homeownership is so much more than shelter. It brings stability, safety, and the foundation for wealth creation. Without an affordable place to live, necessities like higher education, healthy nutrition, and adequate healthcare all take a back seat.

So, as America resolves the current housing crisis, we hope it will include the tribes and address the need that has existed since the reservation system began. This will take collaboration between federal and state agencies, tribes, and other stakeholders with an eye to land ownership, infrastructure, and long-term economic development. Some HUD programs like Section 184 Home Loans (only 441 in 2022) and Title VI are underutilized and can be part of the solution. Federally certified Native CDFIs are also a promising sign for Native housing, but funding alone will not yield a sustainable solution.