Several challenges make home ownership a distant reality for many Native Americans. Compared to non-Hispanic white Americans, there are staggering disparities in homeownership rates. NeighborWorks America is a nonprofit organization that seeks to close this gap. Begun to create more opportunities for people to live in affordable housing, NeighborWorks America provides grants, technical assistance, and assessment tools to support housing and community development professionals. Mel Willie is the Director of Native Partnerships and Strategy for NeighborWorks America and sat down to discuss barriers to Native American home ownership and what NeighborWorks is doing to reduce those barriers.
Janice Gassam Asare: Mel Willie, could you tell a bit more about yourself for readers who don’t know you?
Mel Willie: Sure. My name is Mel Willie. I am a member of the Navajo Nation. I was born and raised in northern Arizona on the Navajo Reservation in Window Rock, Arizona. I am currently Director of Native Strategy for NeighborWorks America. I have been in this position since May of last year. Previously, I had my own consulting firm where I worked with tribes on organizational development, communications, strategic planning, and just a number of miscellaneous issues for 10 years. Prior to that, I was the executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council, which represented all of the tribal housing authorities across the United States, and implemented a massive program of training and technical assistance, as well as represented their interests with Congress and the administration.
In the same way: Can you tell us a bit more about the work you are currently doing with NeighborWorks America?
willy: Sure. I’m excited to talk with you today about how the level playing field isn’t leveling the playing field for Native American homeownership, and why, and what NeighborWorks America is doing to help. NeighborWorks is really focused on building vibrant and sustainable communities across Indian Country, and the way we’re able to do that is, one of the things we do is we do education in large-scale ownership, and we support ownership education with our partners. Whether it’s the National American Indian Housing Council or Oweesta Corporation, one of the organizations in our network.
We also supply our training institutes, which also conduct train-the-trainer sessions for members of our network who provide these services to tribal communities. We also collaborate with tribal communities. We are creating an Aboriginal partnership program that encourages our network. We have 250 affiliate networks…and they form strategic partnerships with the tribal communities to expand homeownership opportunities with those tribal communities, and that’s basically my position is to help strengthen those partnerships.
In the same way: I think there is a perception that there are Native American lands and there are reservations, and that designated lands allow Native Americans to own homes. Can you expand on some of the barriers that Native Americans face when it comes to land ownership and what is within their rights when it comes to homes on reservations?
willy: One of the things NeighborWorks has is we have a NeighborWorks America, 2022 Housing and Financial Capability Survey. From this survey, we’re able to see that 52% of Native American and Alaska Native adults own their own home compared to, I think it’s an average of 65% ownership rate nationwide national. Mortgages in Indian countries can be very complicated due to the type of terrain. There are different types of land when it comes to reserved land. You have tribal trust land, you have tribal fee land, you have fee simple land, you have allotment land. These are all different types of land categories. Tribal trust land is land held in trust by the federal government for use by tribes. This type of land is much more difficult because it requires not only structures of regulation internal to the tribe, but external. And often, banks and regulatory institutions are unfamiliar with these processes. Many of these homeowners need help establishing and fixing their credit before they can even buy a home. That same survey, the 2022 Housing and Financial Capability Survey, found that 80% of Native Americans don’t think banks or credit unions would approve them for homeownership. 80% of Native Americans think they can’t even get a home loan from banks or credit unions. 66% of Native Americans who are not homeowners say they want guidance in acquiring and effectively using their credit…there is great interest in Indian Country and especially among Native Americans who are not not owners to receive advice on home ownership, create this capacity and these opportunities to establish their credit.
In addition, housing professionals are rare. One of the things that when I was working as the executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council, there’s no college degree that you can really get for providing housing for Indians. There is no specific university degree, they don’t teach you these things. So much of that effort has to be learned on the job when working with tribal communities. You could get a town planning degree, but that’s for town planning. And for tribes that live in rural areas and rural reservations, how does that fit? So one of the things that we are working with, with our partners, is to strengthen the training available for the management and operation of housing in Indian country and to help support lending and lending infrastructure.
In the same way: What are the things that you think need to be done at the systemic level? And is there anything else readers can do to contribute to Native American home ownership?
willy: On a systemic level, it is important to build these relationships of trust. Janice, at the center of the relationship with the tribes, the federal government and the American people, has been building relationships of trust for centuries…that trust has been broken, and it is important for us to rebuild it. In my work that I do, and especially within NeighborWorks, having a dialogue and having a space to address challenges and talk about challenges and share best practices and lessons learned. There are over 570 Native American tribes across the United States. One thing I want readers to understand is that Indian country is diverse. Each of these tribes has a unique language, a unique culture, and a unique system of governance for its people, lands, and government. We cannot expect to come up with models that will help every tribe. We need to build relationships and partnerships with these tribes to understand their needs, but also work hand in hand with them. It’s really about helping tribes help themselves. And this self-governance model where they take local action to find homeownership solutions – that’s where we can stand together.
And for ordinary Americans, they need to support local tribal actions. When tribes govern themselves, that is when they are most successful, and that is where they can find the success they need to move forward. And so, everyday Americans should learn more about building trusting relationships with their tribal partners, tribal communities. Whether you’re in a border town, county, state, or whatever, or you’re a business or an institution, it’s about building relationships of trust, and it’s about learn about the tribes and also support their local decision-making authority.
In the same way: Do you think it is important for people to recognize the land they are on? And if so, how can people know which specific Native American land they reside on or work from?
willy: We would be happy to share some resources we have around the areas of land recognition. But beyond land recognition… land recognition is important. On the one hand, it gives us a chance to remember where we stand and to honor the land, and to honor the First Nations people who govern this area, and that we serve as stewards of this land so that we can use it today. But secondly, it is also a way of building an education so that we learn to be respectful with our neighbors and others who have gone before us. And thirdly, I think it’s also this idea of understanding the precepts where the recognition of the lands comes from. This also returns from moves to Land Back moves where tribes gain greater control over land. We see this within the tribes, partnering with the federal government and managing and co-managing their lands. But it’s the recognition of where the tribes have been able to be…self-reliant and sustaining those tribal relationships.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.