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Thank you, Chair Smith, Ranking Member Rounds, and members of the Committee, for the opportunity to testify today. As the senior vice president of Community Development and Engagement at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, I oversee the work of the Center for Indian Country Development, or CICD. The CICD supports tribes through actionable research and community collaboration to further tribal economic prosperity, and also leverages our department’s broader expertise on affordable housing, labor markets, and early childhood development.
I also should add that the views I express here are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis or the Federal Reserve System.
Our work on housing involves applied research, community engagement, and constant attention to economic literature in the field. Our work points to the harmful effects of the current state of housing for Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and other Indigenous populations. My comments and detailed written testimony focus on Indian Country’s specific housing challenges—and on opportunities demonstrated by Indian Country’s leaders.
Housing is often in short supply and substandard in Indian Country. Homes are seven times more likely to be crowded and nearly four times more likely to lack complete plumbing.1 These conditions have been shown to harm family health and stability. In 2017, HUD estimated that 68,000 units would be needed just to address these issues, which would likely cost tens of billions of dollars.2
We focus on five of the factors that reinforce these barriers. First, Native nations are sovereign, but their land is held in trust and must have its title cleared by the U.S. government. Mortgages on trust land are also leasehold mortgages as opposed to fee-simple mortgages. Housing professionals and home buyers frequently identify these realities as significant hurdles.
Second, Indian Country home buyers often face an uphill battle working with lenders to finance their home. Our economists’ work shows that Native American borrowers on tribal lands are more likely to receive high-cost loans, leaving them to ultimately pay more for their homes over the life of a mortgage.
Third, the tools designed to work in Indian Country are underutilized on trust land. This applies to Indian Country-specific products like HUD’s Section 184.3 It is also true of products whose features make them relevant in Indian Country, like USDA’s Section 502 loan program.4
The fourth reason relates to the federal government’s failure to fulfill treaty obligations.5 Developments in Indian Country often pay today for the resulting historical underinvestment in physical infrastructure. For example, poor access to water or transportation raises the price of construction.
Fifth, federal funding sources with different eligibility and process requirements complicate the pre-construction process in, and may not reflect the unique needs of, Indian Country.
No quick fixes will radically improve things overnight, but plenty of innovations are showing promise for a brighter future and present potential avenues of involvement for Congress. Our research and engagement suggest four recommendations.
First, the federal government should continue to expand the financial capacity of Native community development financial institutions, or Native CDFIs, and other tribal institutions. Native CDFIs offer community-grounded credit solutions in Indian Country. Our research suggests that the presence and activities of Native CDFIs increase the credit score of Indian Country residents that previously had the lowest credit scores. And a pilot involving two Native CDFIs and the USDA in South Dakota has shown the power of connecting community-based lenders and federal lending resources.
Second, the federal government can create a normalized and complementary interagency lending process in Indian Country. We recommend that federal agencies and the government-sponsored enterprises work with representatives from tribal governments, lenders, developers, and nonprofits to find solutions and provide guidance for housing in Indian Country.
Third, an improved title process on trust land would support housing development and tribal sovereignty. The Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Home Ownership, or HEARTH, Act of 2012 created a process for tribes to assume additional control of trust land management. Sufficient funding is not available through the HEARTH Act itself to fund the administrative capacity necessary for taking over trust-land management from the BIA, and the cost is simply too high for many tribes.
Finally, data on Native Americans and Indian Country programs should be improved. With some exceptions, existing sources are often insufficient to assess policy impacts or changes in population-level well-being. Illuminating economic conditions in Indian Country will require collaboration on methodologies and new financial resources to obtain sufficient statistical samples.
I thank you again for the opportunity to share insights from the CICD’s work, and would also like to thank my staff for their help in preparing these comments. Congress has recently taken steps to support tribal sovereignty and access to important housing resources, and I hope our testimony provides insights into how federal policy can further support and accelerate Indian Country’s upward momentum.