Why is it so difficult to build tribal housing?

Starting with the Indian Resettlement Act of 1956the federal government’s response to the persistent poverty of Native Americans has been to point out the lack of jobs in tribal communities and to encourage their members to move to larger and more prosperous cities in search of a better life.

Over the next three decades, it is estimated that more than 750,000 natives left their homeland and migrated to cities like denver, Baltimoreand Minneapolis. For Virginia Members Mattaponi Upper Indian Tribe, the relocation destination was Philadelphia. Today – with more than two-thirds of their tribal citizens residing outside of Virginia, Upper Mattaponi leaders want to entice their people with housing.

Other than the double-width trailer from which tribal leaders rule their sovereign nation, an open-air wooden pavilion in Adamstown is the only built structure the Upper Mattaponi could claim to own – until recently. Last month, the tribe purchased a three-bedroom, two-bathroom rancher at Central Garage, which will soon become Upper Mattaponi’s first official tribal housing unit. At $250,000, the house marks a good first step towards the tribe’s goals, but such prices mean that buying existing housing would quickly become prohibitively expensive in an effort to reunite (and centrally house) the indigenous nation of 650 members.

“The current real estate market makes it very difficult for the tribe to compete in the open market,” said Chief W. Frank Adams, who leads the Upper Mattaponi Tribal Council. “In the short term, the tribe is working to purchase homes to help tribal citizens in immediate peril, providing rapid response, advice and development, and job opportunities. In the long term, the tribe will reestablish Adamstown, the core community of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe. In turn, the tribe will develop social services for long-term housing assistance, particularly for seniors, people with disabilities and those looking to relocate to Adamstown.

The first step towards such lofty goals is having land to build on. Although “return landhas become a popular catchphrase for America’s many indigenous communities as they fight to reclaim their ancestral lands, the mantra is far from official government policy. Last year Upper Mattaponi used part of the CARES Act the money they received to purchase 200 acres in Adamstown about 40 minutes northeast of Richmond – the last area of ​​the state in which a significant concentration of tribal citizens lived. Even armed with federal dollars, the process was not easy.

“Right now it’s so competitive to buy land on the open market, and the tribe is trying to compete by using HUD money that comes with a lot of red tape,” said Morgan Dean, community development manager for Upper Mattaponi. “The tribe now owns 200 acres of land, but we are struggling to get money for a land use consultant. It seems harder to get funding for planning, and I’m not sure if that’s because we only got federal recognition in 2019 or if that’s just what it is to work in a native country.

Tribes & tribulations

Unfortunately, according to Anthony Walters, executive director of the American Indian National Housing Council, the challenges faced by the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe are far from unique. Its organization provides training and technical assistance to over 300 tribal housing programs and 574 federally recognized tribes Across the country. One of the most difficult obstacles that tribes face when trying to adequately house their citizens is the lack of federal funding.

“The tribes forfeited access to other federal housing programs in 1998 in exchange for the new Indian Housing Block Grant Scheme, but now they’re back in the same underfunded position,” Walters said. “The grant program funding level was $650 million and stayed the same for 20 years, so you can imagine what inflation has done to that. Today, it is only two-thirds of its original purchasing power, and tribal populations have grown, not to mention the number of federally recognized tribes has also grown.

After centuries of persecution and displacement, the majority of Native American nations are located in remote rural areas, far from power grids, water supply systems and sewage treatment. As the tribes develop their lands for the first time for housing, this means they face much higher costs to build such needed infrastructure. If building new communities from the ground up wasn’t already a difficult task, many tribes only have one person to handle all of their housing work, from rental assistance to case management. through the construction of new units.

Too little time and too much to do certainly sounds like an accurate description of Dean’s position with the Upper Mattaponi. Currently, the tribe has 31 low-to-moderate income citizen households in their service area, including 20 at risk of homelessness and receiving housing assistance related to COVID-19. In addition to her workload, she also leads the tribe’s planning and programming department and manages the writing of grants needed to fund much of the tribe’s mid- and long-term plans.

“Resources are always an issue when administrators do so much for housing services and then have to figure out how to build new housing as well,” Walters said. “Small tribes don’t have the bandwidth to compete with much larger tribes like the Cherokee and Navajo nations that have hundreds of thousands of members and sophisticated government operations. There is also a lot of turnover among the smaller tribes due to high demand from their people which leads to burnout.

Virginia is for the natives

The limited governance capacity of tribes can, however, be enhanced by supportive state governments. Although some state governments use the sovereign status of indigenous nations as an excuse to avoid financial assistance, others have taken a more hands-on approach and have been rewarded with positive results.

Minnesota convenes tribes across the state for conferences to share which government programs they are eligible for. Alaska’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program has proven to be one of the most successful in the nation, thanks in large part to proactive outreach to Native residents. Such supportive approaches to complementing and expanding the ability of tribes to provide for their members are the best way forward for state governments, according to Walters: “State leaders must be intentional in helping tribal communities, they are still citizens of the state.

Virginia’s seven federally recognized tribes have only been granted this status in the past six years. The Commonwealth, on the other hand, officially recognizes 11 tribes and has extended this recognition of sovereignty to most of them during almost 40 years now. In his work with Upper Mattaponi over the past year, Dean has witnessed a positive relationship between the state and tribal nations within its boundaries: “They treat us as equals and come to respecting our sovereignty,” she said. “The state has helped us in a way that is not paternalistic but as an equal partner.”

The Commonwealth assists tribes in applying for grants from the Department of Housing and Community Development. Under the Northam administration, tribal leaders have enjoyed unprecedented access to the governor’s team and agency heads, according to Dean and Courtney Wynn — a member of the Chickahominy tribe and former director of Native American outreach and natives under Northam.

Last month, the Chickahominy tribe acquired 800 acres of ancestral land in Charles City County through a $3.5 million appropriation in the last budget. If the provisions survive the current round of budget negotiations under the Youngkin administration, federally recognized tribes in Virginia could see an additional $12 million in funding for more land purchases.

Where the Commonwealth could do more is on the issue of broadband access, Wynn said.

“All of Virginia’s tribes are centered in rural communities,” Wynn said. “People are moving away from tribal communities, as I did, for economic reasons and job opportunities. With the pandemic, we have seen that there are people who would be willing to return to their tribal community and work there if they had reliable broadband. If we can ensure the entire Commonwealth has reliable and affordable broadband, it will also help Virginia’s tribal communities stay together as they will have more opportunities to support themselves.

On the road to a future of telecommuting tribal citizens, Upper Mattaponi received some good news two months ago. With the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico and Sokaogon Chippewa A community in Wisconsin, the Upper Mattaponi were one of the first three indigenous nations in the country to receive part of the $1.4 million distributed last November through the new Tribal Broadband Connectivity program.

Increased internet access is an important first step towards Upper Mattaponi’s ultimate goal of establishing a tribal headquarters in Adamstown that would house government offices, a gym, a community center, a care facility for people elderly and 40 housing units – all within the footprint of a pedestrian and sustainable village concept. “We’re on the right track,” Dean said. “We’re working on it piece by piece and hopefully within three years Adamstown will finally have housing again.”

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