The Hidden Housing Crisis in Indian Country

All told, about 90,000 Native families are homeless or under-housed on a given night, and Native communities nationwide face an immediate housing shortfall of 200,000 homes.
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Two weeks ago, tourists in Washington, DC, met an unexpected roadblock as they strolled through the National Mall: a grey modular home that resembled a beat-up freight container.

The two-bedroom, one-bathroom home once housed 13 people on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux people. It traveled 1,500 miles before being placed in front of the U.S. Capitol on April 17, part of the "Trail of Hope for Indian Housing" to raise awareness about the dismal housing conditions in Native communities across the country.

"[Congress] is going to understand how we live," said Paul Iron Cloud, executive director of the Oglala Sioux Housing Authority and one of the campaign's organizers, in a TV interview. "The biggest thing in our reservation is housing... It affects the education part of life, it affects the health of our people," he said.

According to Iron Cloud, the Pine Ridge Reservation needs about 4,000 homes to provide adequate shelter for its current population. Today they have about 1,100. And at current levels of support from the federal government, the community can realistically build about 10 homes per year.

One could only hope that Pine Ridge is an anomaly--that such abysmal conditions couldn't possibly be commonplace for Native Americans today. But they'd be wrong.

In fact, Native families live in some of the worst housing in the country. According to the most recent estimates, they are two-and-a-half times more likely to live in an overcrowded home than the general population, seven-times more likely to lack telephone service, 10 times more likely to live without adequate plumbing and 11 times more likely to lack adequate kitchen facilities.

All told, about 90,000 Native families are homeless or under-housed on a given night, and Native communities nationwide face an immediate housing shortfall of 200,000 homes.

As Iron Cloud noted, those unsafe and unstable living situations have severe consequences on health and education outcomes, limiting the opportunities available to Native communities. For example, research links crowded housing conditions to an increased spread of diseases--such as
tuberculosis, pneumonia, hepatitis and other disorders--and increased social problems such as
poor educational attainment, alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse.

That's one reason why roughly one in four people on Native American lands are in poverty today, almost double the national poverty rate.

This crisis has been going on for decades, largely hidden from public view. Tribal lands are rarely part of the national conversation around housing and community development--in part because they're often in rural areas, outside dense, urban landscapes where federal programs tend to focus.

While needs rise and conditions deteriorate, federal funding for tribal housing programs has stayed flat in recent years. And due to mandatory across-the-board cuts known as "sequestration," those programs will likely see significant cuts this year.

"They expect us to just survive on so-much-dollars every year," said Iron Cloud on the National Mall in April. "Congress gives us that same amount of money darn-near every year, without knowing that our population is growing," he said.

We can no longer stand idly as Native families suffer. It's time to give this crisis the attention and resources it deserves.

The recently launched Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative--which brings together community developers, architects, advocates and policymakers to focus on healthy, affordable and culturally-appropriate housing on Native lands--aims to do just that. On May 2, the collaborative will host representatives from more than a dozen tribes at the National Museum of the American Indian--just a few steps from where the Pine Ridge home sat last week--to highlight the housing problems facing Native communities and discuss innovative ways that tribes are working to overcome the crisis.

Tribal nations clearly need more resources for housing, but we know that this crisis cannot be solved by government alone. We also need to help tribes better target available dollars to need and attract private investment in their communities. Unfortunately, even programs that aim to do that, such as HUD's Section 4 Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants, have been cut in recent years.

To be sure, housing will not solve all of the problems facing Native communities today, but it's a smart place to start. "When you've got two or three families living in a house, how do you expect (those) kids to do their homework when they come back from school?" Iron Cloud asked during congressional testimony last month. "(Native Americans) don't deserve that."

Terri Ludwig is the President and CEO of Enterprise Community Partners, a leading national provider of the development capital and expertise it takes to create decent, affordable homes in thriving communities.

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