Native American Housing: Challenges Facing HUD's Indian Housing Program

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-03-12.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                    United States General Accounting Office

GAO                 Testimony
                    Before the Committees on Indian Affairs and Banking,
                    Housing, and Urban Affairs U.S. Senate

For Release
on Delivery
Expected at
                    NATIVE AMERICAN
2:30 p.m. EST
Wednesday           HOUSING
March 12, 1997

                    Challenges Facing HUD’s
                    Indian Housing Program
                    Statement of Judy A. England-Joseph,
                    Director, Housing and Community
                    Development Issues.
                    Resources, Community, and Economic
                    Development Division

    Messrs. Chairmen and Members of the Committees:

    We are pleased to have this opportunity to discuss the Department of
    Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Indian housing programs. The
    federal government has moved from giving no recognition at all to Indian
    housing needs; to funding them through Indian housing authorities along
    with public housing; to establishing in October 1997 a system of housing
    block grants for the sovereign tribes to provide them with additional
    opportunities for self-determination. Federal housing assistance is needed
    in tribal areas. The Urban Institute recently reported that 40 percent of
    Native Americans in tribal areas live in overcroweded or physically
    inadequate housing compared with 6 percent of the U.S. population.1
    Moreover, providing safe and decent housing at a reasonable cost in tribal
    areas is difficult because of the austere and remote nature of the setting.

    Today, our testimony focuses on the (1) funding history and results of
    HUD’s housing programs for Native Americans, (2) factors that complicate
    and make costly the development and maintenance of affordable housing
    for Native Americans, and (3) HUD’s ability to detect mismanagement in
    Indian housing and the potential impact of the recently enacted Native
    American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 on HUD’s
    oversight of Indian housing. Our testimony is based on our draft report on
    HUD’s Indian housing programs that we are preparing at the request of the
    Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies, House Committee
    on Appropriations; our recent visits to several Indian housing authorities;
    and our discussions with officials at selected field offices of HUD’s Office of
    Native American Programs.

    In summary, we found the following:

•   From fiscal year 1986 through fiscal year 1995, HUD provided $4.3 billion
    (constant 1995 dollars) for housing and community development in tribal
    areas. Of this amount, HUD provided $3.9 billion to approximately 189
    Indian housing authorities to develop and maintain affordable housing and
    assist low-income renters. In this period, the authorities used the funds to
    construct over 24,000 single-family homes, operate and maintain existing
    housing, and encourage other development. Over the decade, HUD also has
    provided direct block grants totaling over $428 million (constant 1995
    dollars) to eligible tribes for community development and mortgage

     Assessment of American Indian Housing Needs and Programs, Urban Institute, May 1996.

    Page 1                                                                     GAO/T-RCED-97-105
             •   Many factors complicate and make costly the development and
                 maintenance of affordable housing for Native Americans. These factors
                 include the remoteness and limited human resources of many Indian
                 housing authorities and the Indian communities they serve, land-use
                 restrictions and the inhospitality of the land, the difficulty that contractors
                 and Indian housing authorities have in complying with statutory
                 requirements to give hiring preference to Indians, and the vandalism and
                 neglect that make heavy demands on the scarce maintenance funds
                 available to Indian housing authorities.
             •   In December 1996, the Seattle Times reported 29 instances of possible
                 mismanagement or misuse of federal funds by Indian housing authorities.
                 For example, the Times reported that Indian housing authorities used
                 federal funds to build luxury homes, covered the mismanagement of one
                 federal grant with funds from another grant, and reprogrammed large
                 federal grants without HUD’s approval. HUD’s IG found that most of these
                 reports were accurate. Our work found that HUD does not effectively apply
                 its system for alerting it to poorly performing Indian housing authorities.
                 As a result, HUD may not be able to detect additional instances of
                 mismanagement or misuse of funding. Furthermore, HUD’s approach to
                 overseeing Indian housing may change, depending on regulations now
                 being developed to implement the new Indian housing legislation.

                 The United States Housing Act of 1937 established the Public Housing
Background       Program to provide decent, safe, and sanitary housing for low-income
                 families. For many years, this act was interpreted to exclude Native
                 Americans living in or near tribal areas. In 1961, however, HUD and the
                 Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) determined that Native Americans could
                 legally participate in the rental assistance for low-income families
                 authorized by the 1937 act and issued regulations to implement this
                 determination. In 1988, the Indian Housing Act established a separate
                 Indian housing program and prompted HUD to issue regulations specific to
                 this program. With the recently enacted Native American Housing
                 Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 (whose regulations are
                 scheduled to take effect on Oct. 1, 1997), the Congress completed the
                 process of separating Indian housing from public housing.

                 According to the May 1996 report by the Urban Institute, the housing
                 needs of Native Americans are growing. Their population rose sixfold over
                 the past four decades to over 2 million in 1990, 60 percent of whom live in
                 tribal areas or in the surrounding counties. And, compared to non-Indians,
                 Native Americans are more family-oriented—37 percent of Native

                 Page 2                                                       GAO/T-RCED-97-105
                          American households are married couples with children versus 28 percent
                          of non-Indian households. Compared to non-Indians, Native Americans
                          have a higher unemployment rate (14 percent versus 6 percent), a smaller
                          number of workers in “for-profit” firms per thousand people (255 versus
                          362), and a higher share of households with very low incomes (33 percent
                          versus 24 percent). Moreover, Indian housing conditions are much worse
                          than housing conditions in other areas of the country: 40 percent of Native
                          Americans in tribal areas live in overcrowded or physically inadequate
                          housing compared with 6 percent of the U.S. population.

                          Through its Native American Programs headquarters office and its six field
                          offices, and with the help of approximately 189 Indian housing authorities,
                          HUD administers the majority of the housing programs that benefit Native
                          American families in or near tribal areas. Several significant differences
                          exist, however, between HUD’s assistance to these families and to families
                          (non-Indian and Indian) living in urban and other areas. First, HUD’s
                          support for Native Americans derives, in part, from the nation’s
                          recognition of special obligations to the Native American population and is
                          reflected in treaties, legislation, and executive orders. Second, the federal
                          government deals with recognized tribes directly in a
                          sovereign-to-sovereign relationship, rather than through the general
                          system of state and local government. This status allows tribes to establish
                          their own system of laws and courts. Third, the Bureau of Indian Affairs
                          often holds in trust a considerable amount of land for a tribe as a whole;
                          thus, this land is not subdivided into many private holdings as occurs in
                          the rest of the country.2

                          This trust arrangement has frustrated the development of private housing
                          markets in tribal areas and has long been seen as a special justification for
                          federal assistance in housing production.

                          Under current regulations, IHAs administer most of the low-income
HUD Provides Most         housing assistance that HUD provides to Native Americans. But HUD also
Funding for Housing       provides some housing assistance directly to tribes and individuals.
Assistance Through        Funding provided through housing authorities is used to

Indian Housing        •   develop housing for eventual ownership by individual families through the
Authorities               Mutual Help Program under which families lease and then buy their homes
                          by making payments to the IHA of approximately 15 percent of their

                           BIA also provides a relatively small amount of funding, approximately $20 million annually, through
                          its Housing Improvement Program for constructing new affordable housing.

                          Page 3                                                                         GAO/T-RCED-97-105
    adjusted income and must cover their own routine operating and
    maintenance expenses;
•   develop and maintain rental housing for low-income families through the
    Rental Housing Program which, like the public housing program, makes
    low-income rental housing available to families from an IHA at a cost of
    30 percent of their adjusted income;
•   modernize and rehabilitate established low-income housing through the
    public housing modernization program; and
•   subsidize IHAs to defray operating expenses that rental income does not
    cover and provide rental vouchers for low-income families.

    Funding available to tribes and individuals includes

•   loan guarantees for home mortgages,
•   block grants through the HOME program for tribes to develop affordable
    housing in tribal areas, and
•   community development block grants to enhance infrastructure and other
    economic development activities.

    As shown in table 1, over the past decade HUD provided a total of
    $4.3 billion for these programs, which have produced or are expected to
    produce a total of 24,542 housing units.

    Page 4                                                   GAO/T-RCED-97-105
Table 1: Results of Major Housing and
Community Development Programs for          Program                       Funding for FY 1986-1995 Significant results
Native Americans, Fiscal Years              Mutual Help Program                             $1,613 Completed 15,721 units
1986-95, Constant 1995 Dollars in
                                            Rental Housing Program                             831 Completed 8,821 units
                                            Modernization of low-income                        926 Rehabilitated housing units
                                            housing                                                to meet HUD’s standards
                                                                                                   and upgraded IHAs’
                                                                                                   management, financial, and
                                                                                                   accounting control systems
                                            IHA operating subsidy                              548 Subsidized IHAs’ expenses
                                                                                                   for managing the 82,000
                                                                                                   assisted units and provided
                                                                                                   funding for various
                                                                                                   management activities
                                            Section 184 loan guarantee                           3 Provided guarantees for
                                                                                                   477 loans in 1995, the
                                                                                                   program’s first year
                                            HOME affordable housing                             54 Provided 59 grants to
                                            block grant                                            construct, rehabilitate, and
                                                                                                   acquire houses
                                            Community Development                              371 Supported housing
                                            Block Grant (CDBG)                                     programs and
                                                                                                   homeownership assistance;
                                                                                                   the construction of
                                                                                                   community facilities, such
                                                                                                   as roads, water, and sewer
                                                                                                   facilities and community
                                                                                                   buildings; and economic
                                                                                                   development activities
                                            Total                                           $4,347 Completed 24,542 units

                                            HUD and IHAs encounter unique challenges and costly conditions in
Providing Housing                           administering and providing housing programs for Native Americans.
Assistance for Native                       Because of the over 550 separate Indian nations, cultures, and traditions,
Americans Is                                not all of these conditions are equally prevalent throughout tribal areas,
                                            nor do they have a common impact on developing and maintaining
Challenging and                             housing. Among the challenges and conditions highlighted in our
Costly                                      discussions with officials of HUD and several IHAs, as well as in the
                                            May 1996 study by the Urban Institute, are

                                        •   the remoteness and limited human resources of many IHAs and the Native
                                            American communities they serve;
                                        •   the lack of suitable land and the severity of the climate;
                                        •   the difficulty contractors and IHAs have in complying with statutory
                                            requirements to give hiring preference to Native Americans; and

                                            Page 5                                                          GAO/T-RCED-97-105
                            •   the pressure that vandalism, tenants’ neglect, and unpaid rent put on
                                scarce maintenance funds.

Remote Reservations Limit       The extent and pattern of the lands held by Native Americans are very
Infrastructure and              different today from what they were at the beginning of the 19th century.
Availability of Human           During that century, the land area over which Indians had sovereignty and
                                which was available for creating reservations was often reduced to small
Resources                       pieces in isolated areas. The remoteness of some of these tribal areas has
                                created significant problems for housing development. In contrast to
                                metropolitan areas, where basic infrastructure systems (including sewers,
                                landfills, electricity, water supply and treatment, and paved roads) are
                                already in place, remote tribal areas may require a large capital investment
                                to create these systems to support new housing.

                                The remoteness of many of the tribal areas also increases the cost of
                                transporting the supplies, raises labor costs, and reduces the availability of
                                supplies and of an “institutional infrastructure” of developers and
                                governmental and private entities. For example, transporting a drilling rig
                                over many miles and hours into the desert to a tribal area in California is
                                far more costly than if the well had been needed in a less remote area. In
                                addition, as the Urban Institute found in its study of Native American
                                housing needs, private housing developers, contractors, and suppliers;
                                governmental planners and building inspectors; private financial
                                institutions; and nonprofit groups are all less available in remote tribal

                                The limited human resources of many IHAs also contributes to the high
                                cost of developing and maintaining housing. HUD’s Deputy Assistant
                                Secretary for Native American Programs told us that housing authorities
                                that recruit their staff from a small tribal population often have difficulty
                                finding qualified managers to administer multimillion-dollar housing
                                grants. This problem is made worse when coupled with the statutory
                                requirement to give Indians first consideration for such jobs. Because
                                many Indian applicants have incomplete formal educations, they often
                                need more time to become familiar with HUD’s assisted housing program
                                and regulations than applicants from the larger pool enjoyed by a public
                                housing authority in an urban area, according to the Deputy Assistant

                                The executive director at the Gila River Housing Authority in Sacaton,
                                Arizona, echoed these views when he described his inability to hire skilled

                                Page 6                                                       GAO/T-RCED-97-105
                            and dependable tribal members. He pointed out that many skilled
                            members have personal problems associated with drugs and alcohol,
                            causing the housing authority to search outside the tribal area for much of
                            its labor force. He also said that because members of the available
                            semiskilled work force need a significant amount of training before they
                            are employable, he cannot afford to hire them. Moreover, some of the
                            tribe’s laborers are drawn to cities away from the reservation, he said,
                            because of the greater employment opportunities and higher wages there.

                            This lack of skilled human resources is costly. HUD officials told us that as
                            a general rule in the construction industry, labor costs should not exceed
                            50 percent of the total cost, but in tribal areas labor costs can run as high
                            as 65 percent because contractors generally have to bring in skilled
                            workers and pay for lodging and commuting costs.

Land-Use Restrictions and   In many tribal areas, observers see what appears to be a vast expanse of
the Inhospitality of the    unused land. However, a lack of available land is, in fact, a constraint that
Land Complicate the         many IHAs face as they develop low-income housing. Factors that limit the
                            availability of land for housing include the trusts in which BIA holds the
Development and             land that, until this year, limited leases to 25 years in many instances.
Maintenance of              Special environmental and other restrictions also exist. For example, in
Low-Income Housing          planning for development, IHAs and tribes avoid archaeological and
                            traditional burial sites because cultural and religious beliefs preclude
                            using these sites for housing. In many cases, sufficient tribal land exists for
                            housing, but environmental restrictions prohibit the use of much of it for
                            housing. The Urban Institute’s survey of IHAs revealed that, overall,
                            wetlands restrictions, water quality considerations, and contaminated soils
                            add to the cost of housing in tribal areas.

                            In the Western desert, once low-income housing is developed, the severity
                            of the climate can complicate maintenance. The effects of high salt and
                            mineral content in the water and soil were evident at the Gila River
                            Housing Authority, causing damage to water heaters and copper and cast
                            iron pipes. The executive director told us that the average life of a hot
                            water heater costing $300 is about 6 months. To remedy the corrosion to
                            plumbing, the IHA has begun placing plumbing in ceilings and converting to
                            plastic piping. Also, the water’s high mineral content damages the water
                            circulation systems of large fans called “swamp coolers,” used for summer
                            cooling. The executive director told us that because of calcium buildup,
                            the IHA must replace the coolers annually. He also explained that because

                            Page 7                                                       GAO/T-RCED-97-105
                         of the soil’s high salt content, housing foundations and sewer systems also
                         deteriorate more rapidly than in more benign environments.

Complying With Indian    Certain statutes, including the Indian Self-Determination and Education
Hiring Preference and    Assistance Act and the Davis-Bacon Act,3 are intended to protect and
Davis-Bacon Act          provide opportunities for specific groups. However, IHA officials and HUD
                         officials whom we contacted believe that these statutes can make
Requirements Increases   developing housing in tribal areas more costly because they have the
Burden for IHAs          effect of raising the cost of labor over local wage rates or restricting the
                         supply of labor.

                         The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975
                         requires IHAs to award contracts and subcontracts to Indian organizations
                         and Indian-owned economic enterprises. IHA executive directors find that
                         implementing the act’s requirement is difficult and believe that the
                         regulations add to contractors’ time and costs to bid on work for IHAs. The
                         officials said that factors that undermine the requirement include a lack of
                         qualified Indian contractors in the area, the creation of fraudulent joint
                         ventures that are not owned or managed by Indians, and the occasional
                         need to use qualified firms outside the region that do not understand local

                         Under the Davis-Bacon Act, firms that contract with IHAs for housing
                         development must pay wages that are no less than those prevailing in the
                         local area. However, HUD officials told us that this requirement generally
                         increases IHAs’ costs of developing housing in tribal areas. The costs
                         increase because the applicable Davis-Bacon wage rate is often based on
                         wage surveys done by HUD of large unionized contractors based in larger
                         metropolitan areas, and the rate is therefore about $10.00 per hour higher
                         than the rate prevailing in the local tribal area. Officials of the Chemehuevi
                         IHA in Havasu Lake, California, told us that because of high Davis-Bacon
                         wage rates, their cost to develop a single-family home ranges between
                         $85,000 and $98,000. Using the prevailing rate of approximately $6.50 to
                         $8.00 per hour, they estimate the development cost to be between $65,000
                         and $80,000.

                          The Davis-Bacon Act provides that workers in certain trades involved in federal construction
                         contracts be paid wages determined by the Secretary of Labor to be prevailing in the area of

                         Page 8                                                                         GAO/T-RCED-97-105
Neglect and Vandalism   If housing units are abused through neglect or vandalism and not regularly
Draw on Maintenance     maintained, costly major repairs can be needed. These avoidable repairs
Budgets That Are        put pressure on maintenance budgets that are shrinking because a high
                        percentage of rents are unpaid in tribal areas. Moreover, maintaining
Shrinking Because of    assisted housing for Native Americans is an increasingly difficult challenge
Unpaid Rent             because of its age—44 percent of the units were built in the 1960s and

                        For housing units in HUD’s Rental Housing Program for Native Americans,
                        the Urban Institute reported that 65 percent of the IHA officials responding
                        to its telephone survey identified tenants’ abuse and the vandalism of
                        vacant homes as the factors contributing most to maintenance costs. For
                        units under the Mutual Help Program (which are owned or leased by the
                        residents), the Urban Institute reported that, according to IHA officials,
                        residents’ neglect to perform needed maintenance accounted for
                        30 percent of the poor physical conditions associated with this segment of
                        the housing stock.

                        Our discussions with IHA officials reinforce these findings. The executive
                        director at the Gila River Housing Authority told us that vandalism by
                        juveniles was a major problem for him and that because the tribal area
                        borders Phoenix, Arizona, it is more susceptible to gang activity and
                        violence. Chemehuevi IHA officials pointed out that once a family that has
                        neglected to perform expected maintenance moves out and the tribe turns
                        the housing back to the IHA, the IHA often incurs a large and unexpected
                        rehabilitation cost before it can lease the unit to another family.

                        The high level of unpaid rent among assisted Native American families has
                        exacerbated the problem of accomplishing needed maintenance. Routine
                        and preventive maintenance is an operating expense that an IHA pays for
                        out of rental income and an operating subsidy that HUD provides to help
                        defray expenses. However, according to HUD, appropriations for these
                        subsidies have not been sufficient to cover all operating expenses not
                        covered by rental income. Therefore, shortfalls in rental income generally
                        mean fewer funds to spend on maintenance. In recent years, these
                        shortfalls have been at high levels for both the Rental Housing and the
                        Mutual Help programs. For example, the Urban Institute reported that at
                        the end of 1993, 36 percent of all tenants in the rental program were
                        delinquent in their rent payments. In contrast, the average delinquency
                        rate in public housing is only 12 percent.

                        Page 9                                                     GAO/T-RCED-97-105
                             To counter shortfalls in rental income, some IHAs enforce strong eviction
                             policies. Others, however, are either unwilling or unable to do so. The IHAs
                             attributed the ineffectiveness of their policies to such factors as tribal
                             court systems that do not support evictions, the conflict of such policies
                             with tribal culture, and their own lack of forceful management. Regardless
                             of the reason, these shortfalls coupled with insufficient operating
                             subsidies likely will lead to deferred maintenance and higher costs for
                             major repairs in the future.

                             In December 1996, the Seattle Times reported a series of articles
HUD Does Not Apply           describing the possible mismanagement and misuse of federal funds by
Its Risk Assessment          Indian housing authorities. The articles covered 29 instances of
Program Effectively,         questionable performance and in many cases suggested that more
                             effective oversight by HUD could have precluded or mitigated the
and New Legislation          mismanagement at the housing authority. HUD’s IG found that most of the
May Require Changes          Times reports were accurate, including reports of Indian housing
                             authorities using federal funds to build luxury homes for families with
in Oversight                 incomes that exceeded the program’s eligibility criterion and
                             reprogramming significant federal funds from one purpose to another
                             without HUD’s approval. Although HUD has a system to identify poorly
                             performing Indian housing authorities, our work showed that this system
                             did not detect, for the most part, mismanagement by the authorities as
                             reported in the Times. This lack of detection was because HUD’s system
                             focuses primarily on authorities assessed as having a high risk of
                             mismanagement. Furthermore, HUD had not assessed those authorities
                             named in the Times as “high risk.” Not having an effective oversight tool
                             could be problematic for HUD, depending on the regulations that are
                             negotiated to implement new Indian housing legislation taking effect in
                             October 1997.

HUD Relies on Risk           HUD  field office staff rely on their Risk Assessment and Determination of
Assessment Program to        Resources (RADAR) system to identify “high risk” IHAs. These are the IHAs
Identify Poorly Performing   whose management demonstrates weaknesses that could lead to the
                             misuse of federal funding. The RADAR system uses performance and
IHAs                         environmental factors to assess an IHA’s management risks and HUD field
                             staff rely on it to determine where they will allocate their scarce
                             monitoring resources, contract for intensive on-site technical assistance,
                             and focus their training for HUD’s Partners in Progress (PIP) program—a
                             technical assistance program for IHAs with long-standing operating
                             difficulties. HUD staff score Indian authorities on the basis of their funding

                             Page 10                                                      GAO/T-RCED-97-105
                             levels, management control and operating procedures, and compliance
                             with regulations. These scores form the basis for HUD staff to assess the
                             IHA’s risk of mismanaging federal funds.

                             One of the most important factors that RADAR uses to identify poorly
                             performing IHAs is on-site monitoring that provides information about an
                             IHA’s performance and verifies the accuracy of the data submitted by the
                             IHA. At two of the HUD field offices we visited, however, restrictions on the
                             on-site monitoring of IHAs have resulted in a lack of assurance about the
                             conditions that existed at the IHAs. These field offices account for nearly
                             half of all IHAs. In addition, the staff at the offices we visited believed that
                             their knowledge of IHAs’ operations was insufficient and that they do not
                             know enough to accurately assess the IHAs with the RADAR system. Because
                             of this overall lack of assessment in accordance with the RADAR system,
                             and because HUD had not assessed most of the IHAs cited in the Seattle
                             Times articles as high risk, HUD staff were not able to detect inappropriate
                             activities if they occurred.

Impact of New Indian         In 1996, the Congress enacted legislation that will change significantly the
Housing Legislation on       way that Indian housing is funded and overseen. Under the Native
HUD’s Oversight Is Unclear   American Housing and Self-Determination Act of 1996, HUD will begin in
                             October 1997 to provide directly to Indian tribes, or their designated
                             recipients, block grants to carry out affordable housing activities. To
                             qualify for the grants, tribes must submit to HUD annual plans and 5-year
                             plans that provide statements of the tribes’ needs and resources available
                             to address those needs. In addition, tribes must submit annual
                             performance reports that describe the accomplishments of the prior year
                             and describe how the tribe would change its program as a result of its
                             experiences. HUD, in turn, is required to conduct a limited review of each
                             Indian housing plan to ensure that the plan complies with the various
                             criteria outlined in the act and review the performance reports to
                             determine whether they are accurate.

                             Among the act’s requirements are that tribes include in their housing plans
                             descriptions of the housing needs of low-income families and of how the
                             geographic distribution of assistance is consistent with the needs for
                             various types of housing assistance. In addition, the plans are to include
                             detailed descriptions of the affordable housing resources available in the
                             tribes’ jurisdictions and of how various government and private entities
                             will coordinate these resources. For example, the plan is to describe how
                             the tribe will coordinate its resources with those of tribal and state welfare

                             Page 11                                                       GAO/T-RCED-97-105
           agencies to ensure that the residents of such housing will have access to
           assistance in obtaining employment and achieving self-sufficiency. These
           plans and the year-end performance report are significant undertakings
           and are meant to ensure that federal funds are used effectively to meet the
           needs of low-income families.

           HUD is now engaged in a negotiated rulemaking with Indian tribes and their
           representatives to develop a structure under which both the tribes and HUD
           can comply with the new Indian housing law. Until these regulations are
           approved and implemented, it is unclear how HUD’s oversight of Native
           American programs will change and whether HUD can effectively provide
           such oversight with its current systems and resources.

           Messrs. Chairmen, this concludes our testimony. We would be pleased to
           answer questions that you or Members of the Committees may have at this

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