Indians to Tackle Housing Crisis - on Their Own

The US has long been landlord to poor native americans, who will now manage their housing

For 21 years, Kay Red Hail has lived in a low-rent house owned by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The linoleum floors are peeling. Water drips from corroded pipes in the basement. The walls sit on a cracked foundation that's slowly widening. The electrical wiring is so bad it crackles.

"I've raised five kids here, and now I'm raising two grandkids. This house has never been rehabbed," she says.

But for the first time since she moved in, Mrs. Red Hail has cause for hope.

Native American reservations around the country are preparing for a dramatic shift in who decides how federal housing dollars are spent. For the first time, the responsibility for spending federal money will be put in the hands of tribal governments.

The move will give tribes unprecedented flexibility in trying to to deal with one of the nation's most severe - and invisible - housing crises in an era of shrinking budgets.

Nationwide, more than 100,000 native American families are homeless or live in substandard housing.

This 5,000 square-mile reservation - the second-largest in the US - needs about 4,000 houses, officials here say. Many single-unit homes contain three or more families. Some families live in cars and tents. On the country's largest reservation, the Navajo Nation, 20,000 people await modern housing.

Even many of those with good incomes don't have adequate housing; banks rarely make mortgage loans to people on reservations, because they are leery of dealing with tribal courts if they need to foreclose.

Set to take effect Oct. 1, Congress's Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act of 1996 mandates block-grant funding to the tribes. That will replace the housing department current system of distributing grants limited to specific purposes and projects.

There are also new incentives for banks to start making loans more comparable to those given to the general population.

Here, the Oglala Sioux tribe will take over management and construction of 1,100 low-rent and 500 resident-owned HUD units. Paul Iron Cloud, the tribe's housing authority director, welcomes the change.

"We can provide more services when we decide how to allocate the funds," he says, adding that the new flexibility will enable them to attend to some maintenance problems that have long lacked funding. "It's up to each tribe to design its own program," he says.

Pine Ridge, like other reservations, has a history of problems, including HUD rental units falling apart within five years of being built and people refusing to pay rent.

One reason for optimism about the tribe having local control is that the current tribal council has begun enforcing long-ignored rules.

"We collected $56,000 in back rents in six months, not counting the payroll deductions," says Fern Mousseau, tenant services representative. "More are on payroll deductions. We've even gone to the schools to set up payroll deductions. No one ever did that before."

The housing authority has also had three semi-trailer truckloads of junk cars hauled out of housing areas. Tenants can keep only operable cars and two animals on their property now.

Anyone repeatedly hosting loud parties faces eviction. New tenant organizations are helping with enforcement.

Even though there will be more flexibility, the same money has to be spread further. Instead of funding 193 housing authorities, as HUD has done, the block grants will be available to the more than 500 federally recognized tribes. "It's more slices out of the same pie," says Vernon Haragara, HUD Northern Plains Indian Housing director.

The 31 Northern Plains Region tribal housing authorities received $23 million from HUD for the current fiscal year, out of a national allocation of $450 million.

But according to the American Indian Housing Council, the tribes need almost double that amount - $850 million - to meet their housing needs.

A series of scandals among HUD-funded Indian housing authorities in the Northwest last year soured some members of Congress on funding increases.

An investigative series by The Seattle Times detailed extensive abuse of funds, including tribal housing authority officials using the money to build lavish homes for themselves while the homeless languished on waiting lists.

The report attributed the mismanagement largely to a scaling back of monitoring efforts in the past five years. HUD has recently set up a new enforcement department.

Iron Cloud says he and other housing directors hear a lot more from members of Congress now about accountability.

"If [tribal] people are going to have self-determination, they have to make the tough decisions themselves," says Jack Sawyers, project director for the Utah Paiute Housing Authority.

How the new responsibility of managing block grants is handled will likely vary from tribe to tribe.

Tribes that manage well will be able to go back to Congress to ask for more funds and demonstrate the true need, according to Mr. Sawyers.

While tribal authorities are glad to receive housing money with almost no strings attached, they say no one can really predict how block grants will affect Indian housing and how tribes will cope.

"Now we have to put the money with the real numbers and the funding to the theory," Sawyers says.

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