The blog of the Urban Institute
December 7, 2020

Steps States Can Take to Help Break Down Housing Barriers for Native Communities

Throughout the United States, American Indian tribes and Native communities have had a troubled history with state and local governments. This has manifested in direct conflict over treaty rights, issues related to state and tribal sovereignty, and the omission of tribes and Native communities from research and planning efforts at local and state levels (PDF).

In recognition of this history, Washington State, King County, and the City of Seattle are working with tribes and Native organizations to expand their access to government-funded programs and involve them in the development and implementation of critical social services.

As part of these efforts, the Washington State Department of Commerce consulted and coordinated with several Native organizations to launch the Assessment of the Housing Needs of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians in Washington State. The study aims to fill gaps in prior housing research by assessing Native housing needs statewide through two surveys, focus groups, interviews, and administrative data analysis. The study recognizes regional differences within the state and considers the unique circumstances of Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and members of non–federally recognized tribes. It allowed for self-identification of these communities while recognizing the roles of their existing organizations and leaders. We’ve aligned the terminology in this blog post accordingly.

Cross-sector collaboration—among state and local agencies, Native housing and other service providers, planners, developers, and funders in rural and urban settings—was challenging but essential to its success. The lessons learned about assessing and addressing housing needs in Native communities can inform other states confronting housing shortages, affordability challenges, and environmental change among Native communities.

Why it’s challenging to assess Native communities’ housing needs

Washington is home to 36 American Indian tribes and nations, 29 of which are recognized by the federal government, and thousands of Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. But only federally recognized tribes are eligible to receive housing funding through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other federal agencies. Tribes and Native organizations face three primary challenges to addressing their housing needs:

  1. Native communities are geographically diverse
    From relocation out of tsunami zones along the rainforest-covered Pacific coastline to replacement of homes destroyed by wildfires in the arid interior of eastern Washington, tribes face different challenges associated with their locations. To explore common themes, the study divided tribes into three regional subgroups: coastal/peninsula tribes, eastern Washington/Columbia River tribes, and Puget Sound/I-5 traffic corridor tribes.

    Tribal lands range from very small (the Cowlitz Reservation is 152 acres) to large (the Colville Reservation is 1.4 million acres).

    Access to other sources of tribal revenue also varies widely, with casinos generating far more revenue (PDF) for tribes along the heavily travelled I-5 highway corridor and for those close to large urban areas than for tribes in more remote areas of the state. Each of these factors influences tribes’ housing needs and barriers to development.
    Map of Washington State tribes and tribal lands
  2. Native communities have complicated histories
    To lend depth and sensitivity to study findings and recommendations, it was crucial for researchers and stakeholders to understand these communities’ complex histories. Each community has their own perspectives, traumas, achievements, and trajectories that influence the ways they operate, their relationships with government agencies, the severity and types of housing need in their communities, and their capacity to address these needs.

    Tribes’ housing circumstances today were determined by the reservations the government placed them on years ago. They were given limited funding and training to develop housing in remote or geographically challenging areas. To this day, this prevents many tribes from maintaining existing housing and developing sufficient new housing.

    Hasty relocation from tribal lands to Seattle in the 1950s left other tribal members ill prepared for urban living and at the mercy of landlords. This caused tremendous intergenerational trauma that, in combination with the lack of culturally sensitive shelters and temporary housing options, contributes to high levels of chronic homelessness among urban tribal members today.

    Today, American Indian tribes in Washington have begun fully claiming and exercising their treaty rights, expanding their authority to manage their programs and resources, growing and diversifying tribal enterprise, and developing genuine government-to-government relationships.

    Urban Native organizations have also expanded their relationships with government agencies and philanthropic entities, enabling them to participate in program planning processes and receive funds from the City of Seattle to develop affordable housing and provide rental assistance to low-income Native families.As urban Native organizations grow and become even more inclusive of all Indigenous peoples in their provision of services, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians are beginning to find themselves more directly embraced by and invited into the activities and advocacy efforts of Native organizations.                                 
  3. Native communities face unique housing needs and barriers to access
    The study identified the following housing needs among Native communities:
  • more tribal housing, as documented by size and length of time on waiting lists for rental units and homeownership
  • housing for workers, families, and individuals with incomes above HUD’s affordable housing assistance threshold
  • mixed-income housing to avoid segregation in housing by income level
  • elder housing, housing accessible according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, treatment and recovery housing, and housing for people experiencing homelessness, including short-term, transitional housing and social services

Barriers to meeting these needs center around funding constraints, difficulties finding land to build on, and high development costs. The Indian Housing Block Grant and other federal funding mechanisms are limited and can be restrictive or difficult to apply for. For example, some tribes are too small, or their tribal members have incomes that are too low to access funding opportunities like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (PDF).

Urban-based Native providers face additional barriers. Because they are not tribal entities, they cannot access federal funding for tribal housing to address homelessness, transitional housing, and social service needs. Because they are not public housing entities, they have not been able to directly access housing vouchers (PDF) or Continuum of Care funding. And unlike providers in tribal areas, urban-based Native providers cannot prioritize Natives because other federal (nontribal) housing funding requires them to offer housing to all eligible populations, not just Native peoples.

Though this study focused on Washington, these challenges are not unique. Other states likely face similar challenges with nuances based on their own unique geographies and histories.

Lessons for other states

After conducting the study, we identified four steps to help break down barriers to housing for Native communities in Washington State and could inform other states’ efforts.

  1.  Create a road map of programs and funding sources at the federal, state, local, and philanthropic levels. Interagency collaboration to determine how these pieces fit together can help integrate potential programs and funding opportunities for improving and expanding Native housing.
  2. Leverage existing state programs, committees, working groups, and legislative venues. Tapping into existing groups can help bolster a state’s commitment to understanding and addressing housing needs and barriers and make the case for increasing resources.
  1. Communicate regularly with project partners. Routine meetings create an opportunity for stakeholders to share their experiences and successes.
  1. Give supportive service providers a seat at the table. Involving service providers in the housing development design process can strengthen trauma-informed care.

 After decades-long fights for resources and services to meet their basic needs, American Indian tribes and Native communities still face barriers to accessing stable, quality, affordable housing. These are a few first steps in what must be a sustained effort by the state, tribes, and urban Native providers. This study can not only help Washington State; it provides a model for other states to strengthen relationships with and better serve an often-forgotten population.  

Photo by Mike Derosa, image courtesy of the Lummi Nation.

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