When considering the housing crisis on Native American reservations, it’s easy to see the glaring issues faced by low-income families. Their struggles are genuine and palpable. But there’s an underlying story, often glossed over, concerning middle-income Native American families. Those families that fall within the 80%-120% median income bracket. Their challenges present a different facet of the housing crisis.

Middle-income families walk a tightrope with housing. They earn too much to be eligible for most U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s housing programs, but not enough to independently afford a comfortable house. This financial limbo is primarily due to federal assistance programs such as HUD’s Indian Housing Block Grant, which targets the low-income bracket.

A barrier for these families is the unique land ownership system on tribal lands. A considerable portion of these lands is held in trust by the federal government, meaning traditional mortgage financing, where land is used as collateral, isn’t feasible. While many middle-income families would typically be eligible for mainstream mortgages, they’re obstructed by this arrangement.

One avenue available to them is the Section 184 Loan Program, designed to promote homeownership among Native American and Alaska Native communities. By offering federal guarantees to qualified lenders, it mitigates their risk and promotes lending to Native Americans. While this program has advantages such as competitive interest rates and low down payments, it doesn’t cover all areas, leading many Native American families down a proverbial cul-de-sac.

Another critical concern is the shortage of houses. Even in economically stable tribal regions, there aren’t enough homes to meet demand. When a few do become available, they’re quickly  occupied. This shortage is exacerbated in areas where the tribal economy is booming. Flourishing tribal enterprises or profitable external industries can inflate local housing costs. Consequently, middle-income families often find themselves priced out by those with heftier wallets.

A cursory glance across reservations reveals a uniformity in housing structures. The limited variety, ranging from single-family homes to apartments, inadequately addresses the diverse requirements of its residents, especially those teetering in the middle-income range.

Perhaps the most poignant dimension of this crisis is the cultural significance of housing for Native American families. Despite their income bracket, their deep ties to their ancestral lands and communities are profound. To many, moving beyond their tribal territories isn’t merely a logistical shift but a dislocation from their very identity.

Like any other group, Native American middle-income families can face unexpected financial crises, such as medical emergencies, job losses, or other unforeseen expenses. Without adequate savings or support systems, they can quickly slide from middle-income to low-income and face housing insecurity or homelessness.  Additionally, outside reservations, Native Americans often face discrimination in housing markets, making it harder for them to rent properties or purchase homes.

The intricate layers of this housing crisis aren’t widely acknowledged when discussing tribal housing. The narrative zeroes in on the extremes, which, can overshadow the complex challenges of middle-income families. 

Tackling the challenges faced by middle-income Native American families demands a multi-pronged strategy. We need a narrative that encapsulates the gamut of housing challenges that Native Americans face, regardless of their income bracket. It’s imperative for federal policies to adapt and cater to the multifarious diverse needs of Native American communities. As we advocate for improved housing conditions on reservations, we must strive to ensure that every family’s concerns are addressed.

The hallmark of Native American communities is their unity and collective spirit. As we chart the future course, it’s crucial that our policies and narratives reflect this intrinsic strength and resilience.

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Brandi Liberty is an enrolled member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas & Nebraska and a descendant of the United Houma Nation in Southern Louisiana. She is the owner of The Luak Group and its subsidiary...