Recent grant money and corporate support suggest that Indian housing may finally gain the momentum needed to grow. By Matthew Power

The sorry state of Native American housing, both on and off tribal lands, has been well documented. More than 40 percent of tribal homes are overcrowded or in substandard condition.

Yet only in recent years has the situation begun--ever so slowly--to improve. Most estimates put the need for new Indian housing at about 200,000 new units.

This spring, a package of grants infused $471,000 into small tribes to help them meet affordable housing needs. The money came primarily from the Indian-owned Amerind Risk Management Corp., along with The Enterprise Foundation and The National American Indian Housing Council (NAIHC). Freddie Mac also contributed.

Divided among 25 tribes, that money won't pay for new homes. However, says Jane DeMarines, director of mortgage policy programs with the NAIHC, it will be used for training and hiring consultants to help get tribal housing rolling.

"We have a lot of new housing being built," says DeMarines. "One Navajo tribe has a 1,000-unit development under way. And we're working with a lot of different players." These players include for-profit home builders.

Photo: Courtesy NAIHC

Relaxed politics and the effort of trade associations has made new homes such as this a more common sight on Indian lands.

Tribal rules have become much more friendly to builders in recent years, DeMarines says. High unemployment on tribal lands means that builders can often tap a large labor pool--at rock bottom prices. "I believe there has already been an exemption from Davis-Bacon labor laws in one community," notes DeMarines. "That's because the need for housing is so great." A few big manufacturers also have begun to pay attention to Indian housing. They obviously see potential for growth there.

"At our annual [NAIHC] meeting this year we have Moen and Whirlpool exhibiting. If builders were to come here, they would meet a lot of the big players in Indian housing and could start to network. It's like any other industry--you need to connect," remarks DeMarines.