Urban Wire Beyond affordability: rental housing problems in Indian Country
Jennifer Biess
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Last month, we released an interactive map illustrating the pervasive lack of decent and affordable rental housing for extremely low-income (ELI) households in the US. We identified the size of the deficit between the number of decent, affordable units and ELI households for every county. Surprisingly, counties that include Native American tribal lands, which have persistently high poverty and unemployment rates, are some of the places where the shortfall is smaller. But does that mean that housing problems are less severe in Indian Country?

The map below shows the locations of tribal areas throughout the continental US and Alaska where nearly one million American Indians and Alaska Native (AIAN) alone individuals lived in 2010. Tribal

Consistent with the affordability map, we found that housing is more affordable for Native American renters living in larger tribal areas (data unavailable for smaller areas) than the national average. About 38 percent of AIAN renter households living on larger tribal areas were cost burdened (paid 30 percent or more of their income for housing) compared to the national renter average of 51 percent.  Further, the average rent for Native American renter households living on larger tribal areas was about half the national average at about $440.

But there’s another way to consider those same numbers. Even though the average rent is very low, nearly 4 in 10 AIAN renter households pay more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing. That’s still a problem – a poverty problem (32 percent of Native Americans live in poverty in tribal areas, more than double the national rate for non-Natives).

And cost isn’t the only issue to consider when thinking about housing problems in Indian Country. While most US housing units have complete kitchen and plumbing facilities – meaning hot and cold running water, a flush toilet, and a tub or shower, a sink with a faucet, a stove or range, and a refrigerator – higher shares of households in Indian Country do not. On larger tribal areas, 3.3 percent of AIAN renter households lacked complete plumbing, four times the national rate. In Arizona and New Mexico 10 percent of all AIAN households lacked complete plumbing, and in Alaska the share was even higher at 18 percent. These shares have gone down over the decade, but remoteness, challenging climates, and lack of infrastructure mean any progress is hard won and difficult to maintain.

AIAN households are also more likely to live in overcrowded housing situations (more than one occupant per room) than households nationally. On tribal areas, 13 percent of AIAN alone renter households are overcrowded, more than double the six percent national rate. We don’t know the extent to which Native Americans choose these living situations because of cultural preferences for intergenerational living arrangements or as an effort to make housing more affordable, but either way the housing units in which they live may not be large enough to comfortably accommodate their residents.

To improve housing conditions on tribal land, we need to better understand housing conditions there as well as these local and cultural factors. We are currently conducting the first study of its kind on Native American housing needs in nearly 20 years, of which this analysis is a part as well as a nationally representative survey of Native American households on tribal land, visits to 24 tribes and other efforts that collectively will shed light on these issues.

More research is available on the Urban Institute’s new Native American Communities landing page


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Research Areas Housing
Tags Infrastructure Housing markets Housing and the economy Housing affordability Rental housing Native populations