Overcrowding in homes on the Wind River Reservation is a real problem, as seen in the first story in our “Reservation Housing Shortage” series. In the early 2000s, the number of homes with more than six people living in them grew by 5% for Eastern Shoshone homes and by over 10% for Northern Arapaho. And the reason is, there just aren’t enough houses on the reservation. Come to find out, the reason is there are a lot of hurdles for tribes to jump through to get new housing developments funded.
In the heart of the town of Fort Washakie on the Wind River Reservation, workers are putting the finishing touches on the Tigee Village, a low income tribal housing development. Brian Mann is the deputy director of the Eastern Shoshone Tribal Housing Authority and he's showing me around.
“Do you mind if we walk over and kind of take a closer look at this community center?” I ask him. “I don't know if we'll be needing hard hats here but...”
“I think we're out of the hard hat zone,” Mann tells me.
We tip toe through the construction zone to the community center in the middle of the cul de sac. He says, it's taken years to get the money to demolish the old housing development that was full of asbestos and lead paint and build this new one. 20 stylish single-family homes are arranged in a modern neighborhood. Eight families have already moved in.
We walk around the perimeter of the new community center.
“The building has a round front with the nearly floor to ceiling windows,” he says. “You know in native culture, the circle represents many things, the circle of life, and we try to implement that here.”
The plan is to host events and classes here for the whole tribe.
But renting a house at Tigee Village won't be easy. There are over 60 families on the waiting list right now.
“The waiting list can take years,” Mann says. “When we look at the list, some people have submitted applications in the early 2000's, mid 2000's.”
The list got even longer as the process of funding the new development went on, year after year.
“The main challenge was finding the dollars to make the Tigee project happen,” Mann says, “that literally took two years of financial review.
Mann says applications for housing projects like this one are often highly competitive, pitting tribal housing projects against state ones. And the federal scoring process is often biased against rural housing projects.
“You have to have a project that is within so many miles of conveniences, including stores, schools, access to health care, community facilities.”
The closest cities to the reservation are Riverton and Lander, both small, under 10,000 people. Mann says after two attempts, the Eastern Shoshone finally succeeded at getting a $2.7 million low income tax credit project which gives investors ten years of tax credits in exchange for money for low income housing projects. And they've used successes like that one to leverage more capital. In 2014, they received a total of $6.4 million to build and remodel low income housing for the tribe.
Now, the Northern Arapaho is waiting to hear whether their proposed Black Coal Housing Project can get those same low income tax credit funds.
“In the business I'm in, you never have all the funds or resources you need because they're always competitive,” says Northern Arapaho Tribal Housing Director Patrick Goggles.
Goggles says, his tribe is growing, and with 60% of the population now under the age of 20, they need to build bigger homes that can accommodate the cultural family traditions of the tribe, homes with many bedrooms and bathrooms where multiple generations can live comfortably. He says, most of the grants and loans available are only for low income homes, not working class.
“There's your workforce and they're pretty much the backbone of the Northern Arapaho tribe. Because they're the workers, whether single or duel family income, that take care of the relatives.”
Lesli Wright is Deputy Director of the Wyoming Community Development Authority, the state agency that approves applications like the low income tax credit program on behalf of the federal government. She says her agency doesn't have a good way to gauge the true housing needs of Wyoming in general, let alone the reservation. They only know there’s a need when developers approach them with proposals.
But most developers suggest projects for the upper income bracket. Federal programs help cover lower income needs, but there’s a gap in the middle – right where those backbone workers fall.
“That gap has been really difficult to fill,” Wright says. “Gosh, I wish we knew how to do that.”
Technically, the government is obligated to figure out how to do that. In 1998, Congress passed the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act which promises tribes, “affordable housing in safe, healthy environments.”
The Native American Program through Housing and Urban Development prides itself on using a formula developed in collaboration with tribes to fund some of its housing projects rather than the usual competitive approach. Heidi Frechette is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for HUD’s Native American Program in Washington D.C. She says, the problem is, inflation has been eating away at the $650-million a year appropriated to keep up with native housing needs.
“With the aging housing stock, we’re finding that folks are using more and more of their funds to rehab and repair existing homes and have less buying power and ability to construct new homes,” Frechette says.
Northern Arapaho Patrick Goggles says, quality housing for all economic levels of the native community is fundamental. And it’s not just because the feds are legally obligated to tribes.
“As a matter of fact, I’m a federal tax payer,” Goggles says. “I expect the federal government to allocate federal dollars to this reservation because I pay those federal taxes. That’s a given for me.”
The Northern Arapaho find out if their Black Coal Housing Project qualifies for the low income tax credit funding later in September.
In an upcoming story for “The Reservation Housing Shortage” series, we’ll address how a lack of houses has led to a unique form of homeless on the reservation.