Native Renters Struggle With Discrimination In Reservation Border Towns

Jan 13, 2017

Many Native Americans move to reservation border towns like Lander because of the housing shortage on the reservation.

Over the past few months, we’ve been looking at the housing crisis on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The shortage of homes there—and the lack of funding to build more--has led to overcrowding and homelessness. Many Native Americans are often forced to find rentals in border communities off the reservation. Even there they still struggle to find places to live because of racial discrimination.

Ken Hebah grew up in Denver, but a few years ago, he moved to Lander to get a job as a nurse and to be closer to his Eastern Shoshone family members on the reservation. A few months ago, he had a falling out with his landlord and moved out. Since then, Hebah has been unable to find a new place to live.

He said he doesn’t need much. “Well, like maybe a one bedroom, just for me.” 

Hebah said until he finds his own place, he is forced to double up with his sister in Fort Washakie. He says even with his good credit and references, landlords won't rent to him.

“That’s the first question: do you party, do you drink, do you have a lot of people? They already assume I’m going to do something like that,” said Hebah. “And that’s where I feel like I’m being discriminated because of my race.”

Such stories are common in Fremont County, says Jane Juve, the community relations ombudsman for the Riverton Police. Her position was created in 2015 after a white city park employee shot two Native Americans at a recovery center in town. One native woman told Juve about the time she tried to arrange to view an apartment over the phone.

“When the landlord saw she was Native American, the rent that she’d been told was going to be charged over the phone all of a sudden went up by $600 or $700 and there was no way she could afford it,” said Juve.

Because of such cases, Juve helped host a training in Riverton last summer for landlords to teach them about Wyoming’s Fair Housing Law. She said, a lot of times landlords are biased unknowingly. For instance, turning away tenants who don’t have much credit history…or refusing to rent to someone because of their last name.

“Yeah, the stigma of oh, I rented to someone in that family before so never again, even though it might be a cousin 12 times removed, right,” said Juve.

Juve said such things can qualify as discrimination.

Out on a ride with landlord Dave Kellogg in his old VW Bug, we took a tour of Lander to see some of the apartment buildings he owns. 

“This is it, this is the apartment house,” Kellogg told me, pointing out an older apartment building in need of repairs. Then he pointed at a small trailer park across the street. “Interestingly, this little trailer court is mine also. The trailers are individually owned.”

Kellogg said, mostly he rents two bedroom one bath apartments, charging about $650 a month, a good deal for low income families. But over the years, Kellogg has learned to set strict rules.

“I had a rental manager for a while who would just rent to anybody,” said Kellogg. “I finally had to fire him and throw everybody out because the place was just trashed. Spent about $15,000 dollars fixing it and now re-renting it, but I'm being very, very careful."

By careful he meant requiring tenants to provide detailed credit histories and plenty of references, something he said Native American applicants don't always have.

The Native Americans are less able in many instances to meet the amount of information I want to have on that credit application….A lot of them don't have a bank account,” he said.

Kellogg tries to be flexible on an individual basis, but he said he can't treat his rental business like a charity because he has too much money at stake.

Still there are something things he won’t budget on, like only allowing one family per apartment. This one might be the hardest for native families because many prefer to live multi-generationally. Kellog says, most of the time, people comply, but a few years back, he said, “I had one--unfortunately it was a Native American--that moved in, she and her boyfriend and they had a couple of kids. And then all of a sudden there was five kids in the apartment. And nobody wanted to admit to where they'd come from or do anything about getting them out,” said Kellogg.

So Kellogg asked them to leave.

I told this story to Lyle Konkel, the field director for Housing and Urban Development in Casper.

“Was that within his rights?” I asked.

“No, the Fair Housing Law--oftentimes, as I said, [landlords] discriminate unknowingly-- you cannot put a number on how many people can live in a unit.”

But Konkel said Dave Kellogg was in his rights as a landlord to use a strict credit history application.

“Here's the key,” said Konkel. “If you treat them like you treat everybody else in your application process, that's acceptable. But everyone has to be treated the same.”

Konkel says he only wishes more Native Americans would file housing discrimination complaints so HUD could have a better idea how pervasive discrimination is in reservation border towns. A 2003 HUD study shows that one in four Native American renters experience housing discrimination in their life. But in the last ten years, only four people filed for racial discrimination in Fremont County.

Meanwhile, the struggle to find a home there continues for Ken Hebah, still living stacked up with his sister on the reservation.

“It's just like, if someone would rent me a place,” said Hebah, “I would take it.”