The Bristol Bay Housing Authority (BBHA) was founded in 1974 and is the tribally designated housing entity (TDHE) for 31 villages in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska. BBHA headquarters are in Dillingham, Alaska, and its service territory includes three census areas:
- Bristol Bay Borough
- Lake and Peninsula Borough
- Dillingham Census Area
BBHA’s mission is to “promote affordable housing for the Bristol Bay region.” They administer NAHASDA and Alaska Housing Finance Corporation funds and work with USDA Rural Development and the BIA. They provide single and multifamily housing, as well as leverage mortgages to increase homeownership. Tribal members in the region served by BBHA are Aleut, Athabascan, Yupik Eskimo, and American Indian.
While the economy of the Bristol Bay region is better than many other parts of rural Alaska, local Natives still live in poverty with limited infrastructure and poor housing conditions. Housing in Bristol Bay is aging, poorly designed and constructed, structurally unsafe, energy inefficient, and unhealthy due to mold and poor indoor air quality. Moreover, there is simply not enough housing – leading to tremendous overcrowding.
Housing in rural Alaska differs from much of Indian Country in the lower 48 in many ways:
- Extreme remoteness of the regions, resulting in high construction costs.
- Significant climate changes, resulting in excessively high heating costs, which in turn create housing burdens often exceeding the 30 percent threshold.
As a result, BBHA and other Alaska housing organizations have responded to these extremes through design features that keep construction and energy costs down.
With the new resources provided by NAHASDA, the BBHA Board embraced the opportunities to improve and increase housing in the region. Over the years BBHA added in-house expertise. Today, BBHC constructs its own housing, consults with tribes in the region on their design, and utilizes the local workforce in the region.
The BBHA is a recognized leader in promoting mortgages and homeownership for tribal members in Alaska.
Prior to the 1996 enactment of the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA), HUD managed the housing program for the region, and the outcomes were poor and unresponsive to local conditions, needs, or the tribal economy. Houses were built in Anacortes, WA, shipped by barge to Bristol Bay, and erected in straight rows with little regard to design or cultural considerations. Jobs and economic development associated with home construction were, of course, lost to the region.
With the new resources provided by NAHASDA, the BBHA Board embraced the opportunities to improve and increase housing in the region. Over the years BBHA added in-house expertise. Today, BBHC constructs its own housing, consults with tribes in the region on their design, and utilizes the local workforce in the region. The result is housing that is culturally responsive, bolsters local economies, and builds the skills of tribal members.
BBHA also challenged the way HUD provided housing to Alaska Natives. Instead of providing only subsidized rental housing, BBHA began to promote homeownership as a way to relieve overcrowdedness and enhance economic development. The key tool for this program is a standard mortgage model. Mutual Help (subsidized) housing is still an option for tribal members, with a priority for families with extremely limited financial means and for homes still under contract.
The reasons for promoting mortgages are much the same in Alaska as in the rest of Indian Country. There is simply not enough federal, state, and other grant dollars to provide the housing needed in Native village communities. In addition, mortgages provide another source of capital to the community, which can be leveraged or stretched with other funds, such as NAHASDA, BIA and other housing resources.
In the case of BBHA, their approach was to leverage the USDA Rural Development 502 Direct Program with a buy-down, or “soft second” from Indian Block Grant funds, to make the mortgages more affordable.
With the additional capital from mortgage loans, BBHA was able to provide housing to many more families. Even though village poverty remains high, it does not mean that many families can’t afford a modest mortgage payment. In small villages, even one new home is good for the entire community.
The board continues to provide leadership in several ways, including the allocation of funds for mortgages or mortgage buy-downs as part of their Indian Housing Plan.
BBHA’s mortgage model has worked very well for the past several years. The key ingredients to this success:
- Strong Native leaders: BBHA’s willingness to pull away from the Mutual Help rent-to-own model and prioritize homeownership would not be possible without the sanction of Native leaders in the region.
- Strong partnerships: BBHC collaborates with many other organizations in the region –Bristol Bay Native Association, area Native corporations and health organizations, tribal and local governments, and fishing organizations.
- Multiple funding sources: BBHA utilizes the USDA 502 direct loan program, HUD Section 184 loan guarantee program, and the BIA Housing Improvement Program, Category D. Economy of the region.
- Housing Design: Keeping construction costs down requires a concerted effort and intentional planning – getting land donated, promoting subdivisions as opposed to scattered-site development, employing innovative construction techniques, and by paying careful attention to the seasons and construction schedule. The homes built by BBHA crews achieve a six-star energy rating. Wind, solar, and heat pumps are also being used to lower costs.
- Innovative approaches: Using community and environmentally conscious design and construction, as well as employing local work forces.
- Consistency: The current administration of BBHA builds on the mortgage approach from previous BBHA management.
- Understanding the financial needs of the communities: Familiarity with debt among tribal members is critical. Bristol Bay has a strong fishing economy enabling tribal members to fare somewhat better; however, tribal members who are benefitting from the local economy have high costs for fishing boats, permits, and other transaction costs.
- Services to tribal members: The program is marketed to 28 villages. Homebuyer Readiness classes are mandatory. BBHA also offers post-purchase counseling, budgeting, and home maintenance advice. BBHA also provides a one-year warrantee for the homes they build.
- Leveraging Opportunities: The housing problems in the Native villages are severe. More newly constructed, energy efficient homes are necessary, and additional capital investment in the form of mortgage financing is a promising approach to build more homes.
- Challenge the stereotypes: The impression that all of Native, rural Alaska is too poor to afford mortgages has been challenged by BBHA. There are in fact families in many villages who can afford a reasonable mortgage. Even one new home in overcrowded village housing helps the entire village.
- Cost Control by Housing Design: The cost of heating fuel in rural Alaska is very high. The savings afforded by a new energy-efficient home can go a long way toward paying a mortgage.
- Replicability: This model is replicable across Indian Country.
- Pride: Homeownership is a source of pride, self-esteem, belonging, and stability for many tribal members.
- Viable and healthy native communities: Good housing is the foundation of healthy, viable Native communities, and mortgages provide another way for tribal members to return to their communities and attract education, health and other professionals to live there.
- Patient approach with tribal members: Many tribal members have never thought that homeownership was possible for them. Others are uncomfortable with banks and debt. There is a high need for basic financial literacy. BBHA strives to be responsive to the needs of tribal members and meet them where they are on the journey to homeownership.
- Challenge assumptions: The BBHA model challenges assumption both internally and externally about both tribal members as homeowners and the options that are available in remote villages with extreme conditions, including the climate but also poverty, isolation, and employment.
- Take the long view: The BBHA work and experience to date with a home ownership model has evolved over a 25-year period.
- The “art of the possible”: BBHA leadership since 1993 has not been satisfied by the status quo and have methodically implemented their vision through innovation and creativity to meet the changing needs of the people in the region.
- Tribal members want options: The BBHA made a conscious decision to provide alternative asset building options for housing for tribal members and many have responded.
- Aversion to debt: Many tribal members are uncomfortable and lack familiarity with debt.
- Responsive Lenders: The traditional financial industry could do a better job of promoting homeownership and providing loans in rural Alaska.
- Funding Threatened: Under the current administration, the USDA 502 Direct program is being challenged.
- Cash flow: Cash in the local economy is very scarce.
- Limited infrastructure: High need for subsidy due to high construction costs and other factors.
- Land status: Alaska is different from the Lower 48 due to the absence of small amount of trust lands. The cumbersome leasing process by the BIA is not an impediment, but other land status and availability issues exist in Alaska that create real challenges to land use and development.
- Financial industry responsiveness: There is a huge gap in the availability of private financing for mortgages to tribal members in the Bristol Bay region.
On the horizon
Stay the course: Under its current leadership, BBHA will continue to promote the promise of homeownership in the region, strengthen its collaborative relationships with all partners, and continue to innovate with funding, housing, design, and construction.