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FEB 28, 2014 11:35am ET
EDITOR AT LARGE

Tragic Death Underlines Need for Housing Money on Indian Lands

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A recent tragedy highlights the urgency of the housing problems facing American Indians.

According to news reports, Debbie Dogskin, a 61-year-old member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, died inside a heatless trailer one subzero night early in February on the reservation in Fort Yates, N.D. The propane heater in the unit was empty and Sioux County Sheriff Frank Landeis said Dogskin apparently froze to death.

Cheryl Causley, chair of the National American Indian Housing Council, blames this woman's death on a pervasive propane shortage throughout the Midwest this winter. Prices on whatever propane is available have troubled and tripled due to the shortage, she says.

This reminder of the sometimes grim housing conditions on Indian reservations cast a pall on the council's recent annual legislative conference in Washington, which nevertheless had some progress to report on U.S. mortgages to Indians.

Doug O'Brien, deputy undersecretary of Rural Development at the Department of Agriculture, told the assembled housing leaders he has no "silver bullet" to prevent tragedies like this one. But he did report that from 2000 to 2013, the USDA's Rural Housing Service has extended 10,000 home loans for $1 billion to Indians.

"Half of that came in the last five years," he says.

Besides the department's section 502 direct and guaranteed mortgages, he says, RHS extended 679 grants to Indians and Alaska Natives for repairs to their homes from 2009 to 2012.

Between the USDA's efforts and the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 184 guaranteed Indian mortgage, some $5 billion in credit has been extended to Native people in recent decades.

As of the end of October, the HUD 184 program had extended $3.7 billion since lending began in 1995. As with the RHS 502, the pace of lending has accelerated in the past five years, going from $395 million in fiscal 2009 to $672 million in fiscal 2013.

These amounts were made to Indians who live on and off their homelands (more live off-reservation). The res loans are a tougher go.

Beyond grinding poverty and pervasive lack of economic infrastructure, on-reservation lending is hampered by the status of land there, technically owned by the federal government and not the tribes. That makes mortgage lending even harder to do than in other poverty-stricken areas that do not have such title problems.

In addition to the accelerating pace of mortgage making, another fiscal Native housing landmark will happen soon, notes Rayna Thiele, associate director of Native Affairs at the White House. Since the passage of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act in 1996, $9.9 billion has been contributed to the Indian housing block grants it authorized. But the authorizations have stayed flat at $650 million per year recently, which the Indian housing council says is inadequate.

The 1996 law, which has no mortgage facility but provides for infrastructure money to tribes on housing projects through its Title VI project loans, expired last fall and is up for reauthorization. It has an important supporter in the Administration, Thiele says. At a recent meeting of tribal leaders at the White House, "the president spoke in support of the reauthorization of NAHASDA," she says.

David Sanborn, executive director of Indian housing council, shared with me some of the group's recommendations for Indian mortgage lending. The HUD 184 should get more than fiscal 2014's $6 million to make its guarantees. For fiscal 2015, "it should be funded at $9 million," the group says, because "it has been less successful in Indian communities where housing economies are less developed, where employment and income levels are lower, and where residents live on restricted lands."

The group is asking for $2 million to fund the Title VI program, which is where it has been the last several years. And for the Native Hawaiian version of the HUD 184, the 184A, it is recommending level funding of $1 million. (There are 1.2 million Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, according to Census estimates, and 5.2 million Indians or Alaska Natives.)

Could more mortgage lending help forestall tragic events like the death of Debbie Dogskin? Not immediately, perhaps, but the economic development attached to home building would certainly be a step towards prosperity in a county that ranks as one of the poorest in the nation, with 45% of its population living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau.

Causley, who is also the director of the Bay Mills Indian Community Housing Authority in upper Michigan, tried twice during the conference to get one of the federal officials addressing the group to commit to emergency funding to relieve the propane crisis. Neither would.

"That something so tragic could happen in the 21stCentury should remind us of the long road we walk," Causley told her members.

But one government has stepped up into the breach, she says. The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, in Prior Lake, Minn., which runs a successful casino near Minneapolis, has made emergency grants to three tribes in South Dakota, including the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, where tribal members have been burning their clothes to keep warm.

Let me repeat that. This winter, there are people living in the United States who are burning their clothes to stay warm.

Mark Fogarty, Editor at Large atNational Mortgage News, is starting a regular blog of analysis and commentary based on his 30 years covering the mortgage industry.

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