Lack of adequate housing on Native American tribal lands has become so critical that tribes have been acquiring mobile homes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The shelters, meant to be utilized during disasters, are being converted into living quarters for Native American families.
When FEMA announced that it would give tribes 1,000 mobile homes unused after the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, applications from tribal governments poured in despite ominous news reports suggesting that the housing units might contain sickening levels of formaldehyde.
R. David Paulison, FEMA administrator from 2005 to 2009, told the National Congress of American Indians that 110 tribes requested more than 5,500 mobile homes. They turned out to be different from the post-Katrina "travel trailers," the kind that are typically hooked to vehicles for vacation trips and that tests had shown emitted excessive formaldehyde, causing respiratory problems in some occupants.
Through 2009, 1,300 mobile homes were given to 88 tribes, which had to pay transportation and hookup costs, FEMA officials said in an email. Still, even more demand existed in Indian country for such impermanent housing, which most Americans would consider a last resort.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which announced in February the availability of another 500 mobile homes, is transferring 549 from FEMA's unused inventory. Ninety-five tribes had requested more than 3,000.
"There's so much unmet housing need in Indian country, any assistance with housing is always appreciated," says Mellor Willie, a Navajo who is executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council. "The 500 homes alone could just barely meet the needs of one of our larger tribes."
On tribal lands, where about 40 percent of Native Americans live, the shortage of decent housing is worse than in impoverished inner cities. The most recent estimates, from 1996 and 2003, indicate that between 90,000 and 200,000 units are needed to house Native Americans who are homeless or live in overcrowded or substandard dwellings. Forty percent of housing on reservations is considered inadequate, compared with 6 percent nationwide.
Because the 565 federally recognized tribes ceded their ancestral territory to the United States, the federal government holds tribal lands in trust and provides nearly all housing on reservations, primarily through targeted HUD programs. In 2003, the US Commission on Civil Rights described housing situations there as "a quiet crisis" and called for increased federal funding for Native American housing.
Instead, when inflation is taken into account, the spending power of that annual funding has continued to decline, as was happening at the time of the commission’s report. HUD funding for Native American housing has hovered around $700 million a year for more than a decade, except for an additional $500 million in stimulus funds in fiscal 2009.
Asked why the funding decline has persisted despite urgent needs, Willie says, "The American government and American people take a blind eye to the nation’s first Americans."
Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), saw photos of thousands of FEMA's unused mobile homes stored near the airport at Hope, Arkansas, and sponsored legislation in 2006 that authorized giving surplus units to tribal governments.
"It was a good effort to provide housing in places where there's a desperate need for housing options," says Perry Plumart, a spokesman for Johnson. "That housing need still exists."
FEMA had purchased 144,000 mobile homes, travel trailers and hybrid "park models" for its disaster response to Katrina, but the agency's regulations and local rules prohibited using them in flood zones, which cover most of southeastern Louisiana.
Johnson initially said 2,000 of the new, furnished three-bedroom homes with a life span of 30 years would be available to tribes. FEMA later reduced that number to 1,000, the agency's estimate of how many were ready to be transported in 2007.
News reports of high formaldehyde levels in what media vaguely called "trailer" homes led Johnson to seek assurances from FEMA that the mobile homes he had requested were safe. Congressional hearings and federal officials clarified that the homes had to meet HUD safety standards for formaldehyde, which is used to pressure-treat wood products, while the "travel trailers" and "park models" bought by FEMA did not.
Between 2007 and 2009, 1,300 of the mobile homes were transferred to Native American tribes, which paid several thousand dollars to transport each unit, hook it to utilities and prepare a home site. Tribal governments were allowed to use HUD block grants to cover those costs.
Recipients include the Mescalero Apache in New Mexico, Standing Rock Sioux in North and South Dakota, Oglala Sioux in South Dakota and Cherokee in Oklahoma.
"They've been working out great. I haven't heard of any real problems," says Alvin Benally, executive director of the Mescalero Apache Housing Authority, which received at least 21 mobile homes from FEMA and another four in April from HUD.
Some northern tribes have experienced a problem that FEMA had cautioned about—most of the mobile homes are not designed for cold, snowy winters.
"They're not insulated well enough for the North and South Dakota weather," says Johnelle Leingang, an emergency coordinator for the Standing Rock Sioux. "Other than that, we're grateful for them."
Leingang says residents of the 26 mobile homes—who had been flooded out of their previous residences—have faced high electricity bills for heating, and some have experienced frozen and bursting pipes. While some residents fault the federal government, she said the Standing Rock government should have paid more attention to climate-related design issues.
"We needed them, and the last thing on our mind was, 'Are they insulated?' " Leingang says.
The Standing Rock Sioux received 26 mobile homes and the Mescalero Apache at least 25. The Oglala Sioux and Cherokee each received 12. The Oglala had requested 300 for their Pine Ridge Reservation.
To help address the broader housing shortage, the National American Indian Housing Council has asked Congress to increase funding next year to $845 million, enough to compensate for inflation's effects. The request runs counter to the push by conservative House Republicans to cut such discretionary spending programs.
But Willie also hopes to attract private investment to build new housing on tribal land.
Traditionally, banks have been reluctant to make mortgages on reservations because the borrowers cannot own the land on which the home would sit. A potential homeowner can lease a home site, but the US Department of the Interior secretary must approve every lease. That process can take from two months to two years, Willie says, longer than banks are usually willing to keep financing available.
Legislation pending in Congress would eliminate the bottleneck by authorizing each tribal government to grant leases on its reservation after the Interior secretary has approved its review procedures. The Navajo Nation already has that authority under a 2000 federal law that applies only to that tribe, whose reservation straddling Arizona, New Mexico and Utah is the nation’s largest.
Tribes could lease land for residential and commercial properties, possibly stimulating creation of a real estate market that does not exist today.
"This fix could change the face of how economic development is done on tribal trust land," Willie says.