U.S. Senator Tina Smith Highlights Urgent Need to Invest in Housing for Native Americans at First Hearing as Chair of Key Senate Panel
Witnesses Point to High Housing Costs, Financing Barriers, Substandard Units As Key Problems For Tribal Communities in Minnesota and across the Country
U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) - in her first hearing as Chair of a key Senate housing panel – said there is an urgent need for investment in housing for Native Americans in Minnesota and across the country, and promised to continue efforts to knock down the systemic barriers that have kept generations of Native Americans from having a safe, stable, and affordable place to live.
Chair Smith, who was joined at the bipartisan hearing by the Subcommittee’s Ranking Member Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD), said her home state of Minnesota includes 11 sovereign Tribal Nations, whose leaders have been forced to use scarce resources to address a myriad of complicated housing problems. Currently, Native households lag far behind White households in homeownership across the country, and are denied access to the credit needed to finance a home at a far higher rate, she said.
“If you don’t have housing, nothing else in your life works. It’s nearly impossible to focus on school, on a job, or on your family if you don’t have a safe, affordable, and stable place to live,” Chair Smith said. “We need to elevate the voices of those struggling with housing insecurity in Native communities across the country, and we must address the barriers that prevent them from securing quality, affordable housing.”
Chair Smith said that many factors contribute to the housing challenges in Native communities, including:
- In Minnesota, only 49 percent of Native households own their own home, compared to 76 percent of white households.
- Nationally, about 51 percent of Native households own a home, compared to 73 percent of white households.
- In 2019, lenders in Minnesota denied almost 25 percent of Native American mortgage applicants. By contrast, lenders denied only 6 percent of white applicants.
- Legal barriers to lending on trust land, a lack of intergenerational wealth, and underinvestment in federal Indian housing programs contribute to housing problems in Native communities as well.
Subcommittee Hears From Panel of Experts
Dante Desiderio of the National Congress of American Indians told the Subcommittee that 37.5 percent of Native households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, with the lack of affordable housing contributing to homelessness and overcrowding in Native American communities.
Alene Tchourumoff of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank said Native American housing is often substandard, with 23 percent of American Indians in Indian Country residing in homes that have at least one physical problem, and they are 3.7 times as likely as other households to lack complete plumbing. She also pointed to a 2017 federal government study that estimated that reservations needed an additional 68,000 housing units to eliminate overcrowding and replace inadequate units.
Michael Goze of the American Indian Community Development Corporation in Minneapolis, told the Subcommittee that the number of lending institutions that offer mortgage products designed for Native homebuyers is too limited and urged that they be offered through Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs). Such changes would allow more Native homebuyers to successfully finance a new home, he said.
“We have a one-in-a-generation moment to address the deep systemic barriers to housing in Indian Country,” Chair Smith said. “We can help Native families across the country secure safe, stable, and affordable housing, and we can finally give Tribes the resources they need—resources they are already owed—so they can find solutions that work in their communities.”
Other witnesses at the hearing included Adrian V. Stevens of the National American Indian Housing Council and the Seneca Nation Housing Authority, and Eric E. Shepherd of the Sisseton Wahpeton Housing Authority in South Dakota.
Below is Chair Smith’s opening statement from the hearing.
“Housing for Native Americans: Review of Federal Programs, Barriers, and Opportunities.”
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, Chair,
Senate Housing, Transportation, and Community Development Subcommittee
May 27, 2021
Today’s hearing of the Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development will come to order. The hearing will be in a virtual format.
This is my first hearing as chair of this subcommittee, and I’m pleased to be joined by Ranking Member Rounds. We’ve been working together on Indian housing issues for several years. When we started talking earlier this year topics the subcommittee should focus on, Native housing immediately came to mind for both of us. I’m looking forward to having Sen. Rounds as a partner on the subcommittee this Congress as we examine a number of important housing, transportation, and community development issues.
We are joined today by a panel of witnesses who will share their work to address housing insecurity in Native communities and their experiences with federal Indian housing programs.
This topic is personal to me.
Minnesota is home to eleven sovereign Tribal Nations, and large Indigenous populations in the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Bemidji.
I’ve had the great privilege of visiting and meeting with Tribal leaders from Minnesota to hear firsthand what they are seeing in their communities. In 2019, I held a statewide housing listening tour, and we had four Tribal-specific sessions.
A consistent message I heard across all four Native-specific listening sessions was the need for more supportive housing and culturally specific programming. Current and historical trauma among Native Americans contributes to the disproportionately high prevalence of homelessness among these communities. And they told me that without culturally specific programming and trauma-informed care, Native people experiencing homelessness struggle to access services and maintain housing stability.
It’s a difficult challenge, and Tribal leaders are using scarce resources to try and address the complicated challenges of overcrowded homes, cost-burdened renters, and low homeownership rates.
Consider that in Minnesota, 49 percent of Native households own their own home, compared to 76 percent of White households. Nationally, there is a homeownership disparity as well, with about 51 percent of Native households owning a home, compared to 73 percent of White households.
Homeownership requires access to credit, but in 2019, lenders in Minnesota denied almost 25 percent of Native American mortgage applicants. By contrast, lenders denied only 6 percent of White applicants. 
Inequities in mortgage lending are one factor contributing to disparities in homeownership, but we also know that legal barriers to lending on trust land, a lack of intergenerational wealth, and underinvestment in federal Indian housing programs contribute as well.
In this hearing, we have a platform to elevate the voices of those struggling with housing insecurity and those working to combat it in communities from Fond du Lac, Minnesota, to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, to Montana, Nevada, and so many other places.
The last time the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee held a hearing dedicated to this issue was during the 112th Congress – when fewer than half of the members of this subcommittee were even members of the Senate. I’m hopeful that today presents an opportunity for this committee to rededicate ourselves to meeting the treaty and moral obligations of our nation when it comes to ensuring that Native Americans have access to safe, affordable, and stable housing.
We have a one-in-a-generation moment to address the deep systemic barriers to housing in Indian Country, and I hope you will all join me in that effort.
Together, we can help Native families across the country secure safe, stable, and affordable housing, and we can finally give Tribes the resources they need—resources they are already owed—so they can find solutions that work in their communities.
It is on us to prove to Tribal nations that the federal government is ready to live up to its commitments and play a role in reducing homelessness, providing housing assistance, and reducing disparities in homeownership.
Before I turn to Sen. Rounds, I’d like to say a brief word about how I view the work of this subcommittee. Housing and transportation issues touch the lives of every American family, every day.
If you don’t have housing, nothing else in your life works. It’s nearly impossible to focus on school, on a job, or on your family if you don’t have a safe, affordable, and stable place to live. And if you can’t get where you need to be safely, affordably, and reliably, it’s hard to get much else in your life to work either.
Right now, too many families are struggling to afford housing and transportation – especially families of color. For years, sometimes with explicitly racist policies and other times due to poorly conceived efforts or benign neglect, the federal government has played a significant role in the housing and transit-related problems so many families face today.
I intend to use this subcommittee to examine those issues and do all we can to make sure that housing and transit policies work for all families. I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and get to work, and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses and from the members of this subcommittee.
I’ll now turn to Sen. Rounds for his opening statement.
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