Native men, women and children occupy the most severely overcrowded and rundown homes in the United States – but their plight is largely ignored
The home is in crisis. In one frame suburbia, where first the Great Recession foreclosed and then the recovery put out of reach the cookie-cutter house-lawn-car-wife-kids-retirement version of the American Dream. In the next, the city, once home to workers, artists and hustlers alike, but now increasingly unaffordable even for the middle class.
This snapshot, like most other surveys of the political economic landscape, offers a bifurcated vision of America. But at its core stands the same culprit: the market.
No place has loomed larger as epicenter and epitome of today’s market-driven housing crisis than Brooklyn, New York. There, working-class and ethnic enclaves of an older, grittier New York hold out against the looming threat of gentrification-induced displacement catalyzed by the arrival of Ivy-educated millennials with their barista coffee and bike lanes.
The globalization of the Brooklyn narrative from London to San Francisco has emerged as a central trope in politics, housing and urbanization. It’s the kind of phenomenon that shapes elections, inspires books and calls citizens to action.
Meanwhile, out of frame and ignored, a Brooklyn-sized housing crisis has languished in the 617 American Indian and Alaska Native tribal areas and 526 surrounding counties where 2.5 million of this land’s first peoples live. There, Native men, women and children occupy the most severely overcrowded and rundown homes in the United States.
The 11,000 members of the Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, for example, share just 230 reservation homes. A staggering 55% are considered homeless because they’re couch surfing. In the Navajo Nation, 18,000 homes or roughly 40% of total Navajo housing stock lack electricity or running water.
In the twilight of the Obama administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated that these forgotten communities urgently needed 68,000 new housing units – 33,000 to eliminate overcrowding and 35,000 to replace deteriorated stock. This is a number similar in scale to total new construction called for in New York’s current 10-year housing plan.
But while New York’s housing crisis has occupied headlines and led to a plan of action, the indigenous housing crisis has remained invisible. HUD’s study is the first and only in-depth report on the subject.
This overlooked indigenous housing crisis shines a light on an essential part of the broader story of housing, politics and economics omitted in the urban market-driven narrative: the government.
Indian Country, unlike the rest of the United States, is largely bereft of a real estate market. Centuries of treaties and federal policies established reservations as lands held in trust for Indians by the federal government. In contrast to most legislation governing indigenous affairs, this structure is somewhat sensible. It protects reservations, which comprise roughly 2% of the United States, from expropriation by speculators like members of Trump’s cabinet who are eyeing vast oil and coal reserves on Indian land.
But it also means that market-based tools, like mortgages, are ineffective. Until the 1990s, homeowners on Indian reservations could not use their homes as loan collateral. Many still can’t get a mortgage due to bad credit or no down payment – in short, because they are poor. The market sees too much risk for too little reward in lending to them. In that regard, the housing market is like most other markets in Indian Country. Like the markets for jobs and food, it barely exists.
Indian housing is administered through HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing. To put roofs over their peoples’ heads, federally recognized tribes are largely dependent on Indian Housing Block Grant funding. Annual funding has remained nominally constant at around $650m since the grant was established through the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996. In real terms, however, inflation cut that funding by a third over the intervening two decades even while the indigenous population became one of the fastest growing in the United States.
Remarkably, amid de facto austerity, tribal governments have managed to produce as much housing on their own as before the introduction of the Indian Housing Block Grant. Indians, despite stereotypes to the contrary, are shrewd leaders.
At the end of the day, Native households have made up for the massive shortage by piling friends and relatives into small homes so loved ones aren’t left out in the cold. HUD found that between 42,000 and 85,000 Native people in tribal areas would be homeless if they didn’t make these arrangements.
If they don’t want to couch surf, young Native men and women looking for independence or privacy are left to seek housing in apartment complexes and trailer parks in reservation border towns, where one in four face overt discrimination.
What’s remarkable about Indian Country’s massive and forgotten housing crisis is that it would not exist if our government and society simply cared enough to devote adequate resources to putting roofs over the heads of people who need and deserve them. The troubling reality is that unless that roof makes someone money, we simply don’t care.
As long as we continue to pin the housing crisis on the mysterious market bogeyman, we fail to see the true culprit: the man in the mirror.