Homeownership in Indian country

The press reports that American Indian tribes have been trying to expand their limited housing base on reservations but face major obstacles. For example, they have to obtain approval for every one of their leasing agreements, including mortgages, from the federal government. The extra layer of red tape means delays, sometimes adding years to a process that takes only weeks for most Americans.

Several federal lawmakers are trying to change that. They’ve introduced legislation that would give tribes greater authority, with Interior Department approval, to review and sign off on individual leases.

“Relief can’t come soon enough for Montana’s Northern Cheyenne tribe, where only about 20 of the reservation’s roughly 5,000 residents own their homes — and where the waiting list for low-rent
tribal housing has more than 300 names. Worse, many Cheyenne have become so disgusted with the
long wait that they have bought homes on private land just off the reservation. That’s meant less
population-driven federal aid for a tribe grappling with unemployment that runs as high as 70 percent
at times, said Lafe Haugen, housing director for the Northern Cheyenne.”

Under federal treaties with Indian nations and federal law, “the Interior Department holds tribal land in trust, which allows the land to be protected and managed by the federal government. But ultimate control of the property rests with Interior, and tribes have long complained that the approval of leases to use the land for
everything from community development to mineral excavation takes far too long, hurting the economic
development of some of the nation’s most impoverished communities.

The measure, known as the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership Act of
2010, or HEARTH Act, would change a 1955 law and give each tribe the opportunity to develop its own
land-leasing regulations for housing and commercial development. Once those regulations are approved by Interior, tribes would have the authority to approve individual leases without waiting for federal action.

Congress gave the Navajo Nation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah similar authority in 2000. . . .

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said it’s time to act because tribes are being
penalized by delays that can take up to two years. “Housing is a big issue in Indian Country,” he said.
“Imagine two years ago what he world was like compared to now. A lot of things change in two years, so it really does put them in an economic bind. This will help strengthen their sovereignty, and it will help promote economic development.”

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