ST. PAUL — A U.S. Senate housing panel, led by Minnesota’s junior U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, held a hearing on housing accessibility for Native Americans on Thursday, May 27. It was the first such meeting in nearly 10 years.

Lawmakers and testifiers discussed over the course of an hour and a half barriers that make it harder for Native Americans to afford stable housing — such as a lack of affordable options, mortgage lending or generational wealth — as well as legal challenges on trust land and infrastructure inequities.

Smith noted in her opening remarks that, in Minnesota alone, 49% of Native households own their own homes compared to 76% of white households. Nationally, those numbers are about 51% and 73%, respectively.

“It is on us to show tribal nations that the federal government is up to its commitments and to play a role reducing homelessness, providing housing assistance, and reducing disparities in home ownership,” Smith said.

Part of the problem is a lack of affordability. In Minnesota, not only are Native Americans disproportionately likely to live in poverty, but Smith said their mortgage applications are being denied at higher rates than white Minnesotans: In 2019, lenders in Minnesota denied almost 25% of Native Americans who applied for mortgages, versus only 6% of white applicants.

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Dante Desiderio, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians and a citizen of the Sappony Tribe, testified Thursday that Native Americans live in overcrowded homes at 8 times the national average. According to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it would take about 68,000 new and replacement builds to eliminate overcrowding in Indian Country.

If it wasn’t clear before 2020, Desiderio said the coronavirus pandemic emphasized how acute the need for more housing is, with some Native communities getting hit the hardest with COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths per capita.

Homes on tribal lands are also far more likely to have significant structural defects, being 5 times more likely to have deficient plumbing, and more than 100 times more likely to lack heating than homes throughout the rest of the country.

Michael Goze, the CEO of the American Indian Community Development Corporation in Minneapolis and a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, told the committee that investing in housing for Native people won’t just have an immediate impact — it’s an investment in the health, educational and financial wellbeing of Native people and communities down the line.

“Our homes can be the single greatest financial asset in one’s life, making way for families to continue to thrive, versus just survive, in our current economic climate,” Goze said. “We can create an immediate impact to the lives of our youth, elders and adults.”

And it’s not only on reservations that Native Americans face housing disparities, but also for the country’s urban Indian populations.

In a phone interview with Forum News Service after Thursday’s hearing, Smith said Native Americans throughout history were intentionally displaced in an effort to strip away their land and culture, and that such moves by the federal government “weren’t an accident.”

“That was a racist policy,” she said. “What we need to do is replace that policy and its impact with anti-racist policies that actually build up culture, build up access to wealth and access to economic opportunity. And I think you have to do that intentionally.”

South Dakota’s U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds serves as the Republican lead on the housing subcommittee, and said Thursday that this issue is one where he and Democrats such as Smith can reach bipartisan agreement and “really can make a difference in our home states.”

With a willingness to work across party lines, Smith told Forum News Service that she sees opportunity to move forward swiftly. She sees promise in proposals to expand pilot projects that have been successful in the Dakotas, as well as reauthorize and expand the Native American Housing Assistance Self Determination Act.

And with a major infrastructure package coming down the pipeline from the White House and Congress, and Smith said she sees a number of ways it could help.

“One, I consider housing to be infrastructure,” she said. “But second of all, tribal nations have big, big challenges with fundamental infrastructure like roads and water treatment and drinking water. If we can address some of those challenges in the big infrastructure package, I think it would make a huge difference.”