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Tribal communities welcome federal relief funds to help ease housing issues

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Affordable housing is in short supply on this country's Indian reservations, just as it is just about everywhere else. There's a big federal block grant for tribal housing, but it's never been enough to meet the need. Funding has been essentially flat for decades until now. It's growing because of federal pandemic relief dollars. Montana Public Radio's Freddy Monares reports from one of seven reservations in that state.

FREDDY MONARES, BYLINE: A 2017 federal assessment of housing needs for American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian people found that reservations need 68,000 new homes to eliminate overcrowding and to replace units that are inadequate. Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, says that number is likely an undercount.

SARAH SAADIAN: But based on the numbers that exist, we see very consistently that Native Americans have some of the worst housing needs in the U.S.

MONARES: Fifty-four-year-old Tyrone Burke lives that reality on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe's reservation in Montana. He was couch surfing with relatives until September, when a space opened at the tribal housing authorities transitional living center. He rolls his wheelchair down a ramp to the door of his living unit. It's the size of a studio apartment.

TYRONE BURKE: Like I said, for family get-togethers, this wouldn't be very ideal, you know, but it's a space for for me and my kids, you know?

MONARES: He shares a bunk bed with his 10-year-old son. His 11-year-old daughter has a bed to herself. There's a small kitchen and a wheelchair-accessible shower, which Burke needs after he lost a leg due to complications from diabetes. Burke, who's unemployed and survives on disability payments, wants a bigger place for his five other older kids to stay and visit.

BURKE: If you have a house, you can start your own memories and your own bonds with your own, you know, grandkids and nieces and nephews.

MONARES: The waiting list Burke is on to get a bigger place has roughly 200 people on it. The housing authority here manages about 500 affordable housing units total. Some were built with help from a block grant established in the 1990s that splits $650 million a year among more than 50 tribes nationwide. The amount has stayed the same for decades.

JODY PEREZ: Our pot of funds does not grow. It just shrinks. And there's no inflation accounting for it, so it literally shrinks every year.

MONARES: Jody Perez, executive director for the Salish and Kootenai Housing Authority, says in the last 25 years, block grant funding has helped the tribes here to build a total of 52 affordable housing units. She says the tribes plan to build nearly that many in just the next year or so with pandemic relief money.

PEREZ: I can't really believe Congress is allocating this much funding because we've never had it before.

MONARES: The National American Indian Housing Council says in the last two years, tribal housing programs have received more than $4 billion in federal funding. It's making a difference for bigger tribes, too, like the Cherokee Nation, with more than 140,000 people on its reservation in Oklahoma. Cherokee Housing Authority interim executive director Jerri Killer says the money will help wipe out the majority of the waiting lists that some 4,000 people are on for various housing programs.

JERRI KILLER: That's for, you know, housing rehab. That's helping with some rental subsidies. That's also building rental units. That's building replacement homes. That's building new construction homes.

MONARES: Killer says the housing authority plans to build a minimum of 200 homes.

KILLER: Oh, yeah, we're going now. We're rocking and rolling right now.

MONARES: Back in Montana, Tyrone Burke is hopeful. He's tried to rent a home on his own.

BURKE: For a three-bedroom that I was looking at, it with well over $1,500, $1,600 a month, you know, and it was hard for me to find a place.

MONARES: The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes plan to start building new homes with the federal relief funds this year. For NPR News, I'm Freddy Monares in Pablo, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Freddy Monares