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Pandemic relief will help build affordable housing on Montana reservations

 Tyrone Burke.
Freddy Monares
Montana Public Radio
Tyrone Burke.

A federal program aimed at funding affordable housing on tribal reservations hasn’t kept up with inflation since it was established in 1996.

But hundreds of millions of dollars of pandemic relief money recently passed by Congress is giving tribal housing authorities the opportunity to build new homes for the first time in years.

Tyrone Burke rolls his wheelchair down a ramp to the door of his unit at the Salish and Kootenai Tribal Housing Authority’s Transitional Living Center.

“For a family get-together, this wouldn’t be very ideal," Burke says. "But it’s a space for me and my kids."

The unit is the size of a studio apartment. It’s got a small kitchen area and a wheelchair-accessible shower, which Burke needs after he lost a leg due to complications from diabetes.

He shares a bunk bed with his 10-year-old son. His 11-year-old daughter has a bed to herself.

Burke, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, hopes this is just a temporary home.

He’s got five other older kids who are living on their own, some nearby. Burke would love to have a place for them to stay and visit. The 54-year-old is unemployed and collects disability.

He’s searching for an affordable three-bedroom house through the tribal housing authority to bring his family together.

“If you have a house, then you can start your own memories and your own bonds with your own grandkids and nieces and nephews," he says.

Burke isn’t alone in looking for an affordable place to live. He’s one of roughly 200 people on a waiting list for one of the CSKT’s affordable housing units.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development published an Assessment of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Housing Needs. It found that 68,000 new homes on reservations across the country are needed to eliminate overcrowding and to replace units that are inadequate.

Sarah Saadian, the vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, says it’s difficult to get firm numbers on housing needs in tribal areas because recording methods are unreliable in rural areas.

“But based on the numbers that exist we see very consistently that Native Americans have some of the worst housing needs in the U.S.," Saadian says.

Since the late 1990s, the affordable housing efforts of over 570 American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages have been aided by the Indian Housing Block Grant. The program was established by the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act, or NAHASDA. The block grant is meant to pay the housing authority to counsel people buying a home, provide low-income rental assistance and student housing, and build and maintain affordable units.

Jody Perez, executive director of the Salish and Kootenai Housing Authority, says the flow of money is not enough.

“Our pot of funds does not grow. It just shrinks," she says. "And there’s no inflation accounting for it, so it literally shrinks every year.” 

Perez helps manage 498 affordable housing units on the reservation. She says in the past 25 years the housing authority has built 52 affordable units on the reservation with the money from the block grant.

Federal housing officials have said inflation has reduced the impact of the block grant’s roughly $650 million dollars. Tribal housing officials sayit’s no longer enough money to build the number of new homes needed.

In written testimony to a U.S. Senate committee, the National Congress of American Indians recently asked that Congress increase funding for the block grant to at least $1 billion to help address the ongoing housing crisis in Indian Country.

Congress has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to Montana’s eight reservations through the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act to build affordable housing. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan also includes a boost to the block grant and Native American housing programs, though that policy’s future is uncertain.

Perez, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, hopes to build nearly as many homes as the housing authority has built in the last two and a half decades in the next year or so with the federal pandemic relief money.

“I haven’t counted, but I would bet at least 50 families or individuals will be housed because of this money,” Perez says.

She describes the money as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.

“I can’t really believe Congress is allocating this much funding," she says, "because we’ve never had it before.”

She hopes that money will help people like Burke who are awaiting word on housing.

He’s tried to do it on his own.

“For the three-bedroom that I was looking at, it was well over 15, 16 hundred a month,” Burke says. “It was hard for me to find a place.”

With holidays coming up, he wants a bigger home to entertain his family — like his mother did when he was growing up.

“That’s where you build your memories and your bonds, through your family and stuff," he says, "is at her home."

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