Learning About Native Communities at the National Tribal Housing Summit
Brian J. McCabe, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development in the Office of Policy Development and Research.
Last month, staff from the Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) attended the National Tribal Housing Summit in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although we often attend summits to present research and talk about evidence-based policy, we went to St. Paul to learn.
Leaders from tribal communities gathered at the National Tribal Housing Summit to learn about HUD programs. For PD&R leadership, the summit represented an opportunity to get input on our Learning Agenda, understand the research needs of tribal communities, and consider ways that research and policy development can improve housing conditions and opportunities in Native communities.
PD&R’s presence at the summit was just the most recent example of the office’s focus on Native American communities. In 2017, PD&R published the Native American Housing Needs study, which documented the diverse and immediate needs of Native Americans. These communities, like many others in the United States, face housing affordability and supply challenges. Native households experience high rates of poverty and homelessness. The 2017 report, however, emphasized the unique challenges confronting these communities. Native Americans are more likely than other Americans to live in overcrowded housing and housing with structural problems, including plumbing issues, electrical problems, and heating issues.
The Tribal Housing Summit builds on that report by offering an opportunity for PD&R staff to hear about other important housing issues affecting Native American communities. Leaders at the summit shared their concerns about the costs of rehabilitating the aging housing stock. Because many housing units in Native communities were built before codes mandated accessibility for people with disabilities, these residents struggle with units that are not fully accessible.
Other participants pointed to the acute needs of households experiencing homelessness in Native communities. Lacking economic opportunities, many Native households simply cannot afford decent, safe housing in their communities.
Climate change and unpredictable weather patterns also pose problems for tribal communities. Much of the housing on tribal lands was built using materials that were inappropriate for their climate. Too often, these buildings lacked the necessary structural upgrades to ensure that they were resilient to floods, winds, or excessive heat. The effects of climate change are particularly significant when properties do not meet basic construction standards. Noting the vulnerability of these communities to climate change, Native leaders shared their concerns about the challenges of adaptation, resiliency, and rebuilding when disaster strikes.
Throughout the summit, Native leaders emphasized the individuality of each tribal community. The needs of Hawaiian communities, for example, differ from those of Native communities in Alaska or the American Southwest. For example, in Hawaii, affordability challenges are exacerbated by the need to build across the islands. Manufactured housing could help reduce the costs of construction and increase the supply of housing in places like Hawaii. Continued research on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), tiny homes, and small-dollar mortgages will be particularly valuable for Hawaiian communities.
Alaskan communities face different challenges. Alaska Native communities not only are vulnerable to weather conditions but also are often remote, which can increase the costs of addressing climate change and building adaptable homes.
PD&R already is working on many of these issues, although learning about their specific impacts on tribal communities was still important. We are studying climate adaptation and resiliency. We are learning about modular housing construction and the opportunities ADUs present to ease supply constraints on the housing market. We are at the forefront of building innovation. We need to ensure that these policy solutions are tailored toward the unique needs of Native communities. Hearing from Native leaders underscored the importance of this work.