Big news came for New Mexico tribes as the awardees for the Housing and Urban Development’s 2021 Competitive Block Grant for tribal housing projects were named recently. The Competitive Block Grant and the HUD office received more than 140 applications this year, including 58 awarded to tribal communities across the country, to the total amount of $91 million. This competitive program will help construct new housing units for low-income families living in tribal communities and help spur economic development. It is hoped these improvements will provide safe places for growth. Three local housing projects from the Pueblos of Isleta, Acoma and Jemez were awarded five million dollars in assistance. Northern Pueblo Nambe received 1.2 million for their project.
Why is this important? Housing in tribal communities is a huge issue and always has been. Overcrowding is the biggest issue, and its effects are many. In any given year, overcrowding can be the source of domestic tension, which can, unfortunately, turn bad situations worse. Sometimes it’s beyond just having a big family or taking in those in need. The lack of housing, especially transitional housing like apartments, is greatly needed as our communities grow healthy. Young people are growing up and wanting to live and work in their home more than ever, and you have now-retired professionals also wanting to move home in some cases after years off the reservation. Where else are we supposed to go? Grandma’s house can only hold so many, and the line for the bathroom on a weekday morning starts at 5am.
This year, all joking aside, we have seen tribal communities have some of the highest cases of COVID-19 in the country per capita. As we now know, this virus spreads rapidly through close quarters where there is little to no ventilation. During this virus, multi-generational households went from being just a crowded situation to a deadly one. Throughout the pandemic, families had to be split up for quarantine reasons. Usually, one family member becomes infected from outside interaction and brings it back into a closed community. The greatest risk is the young and elderly in these situations.
This urgency of the scenario wasn’t lost on newly confirmed Secretary for Housing and Urban Development Marcia L. Fudge in her statement regarding the awards. “This past year was a stark reminder of just how important access to safe, stable housing is—especially in tribal communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. … The funding HUD is awarding today will support much-needed affordable housing investments in Indian Country.”
And let’s be clear that this was not just a COVID problem; housing has been an issue in Native communities for a long time now. This is without touching on the topic of infrastructure. In the farthest boundaries of some reservations, people still do not have access to running water or electricity. To begin to unravel all the woes of Indian housing in America is for a different article, and would be 20 parts long and narrated by Morgan Freeman.
Why? Because not all tribes are alike. Yes, be warned, non-native folk, tribal people do not all get free homes, tuition and magical ponies. I know this is crushing news. But this same idea applies to housing rules, regulations and requirements. The requirements for building, applying for, or owning a home vary significantly from pueblo to pueblo and tribe to tribe across the United States. It’s not a matter of simple differences in the applications for housing. We are talking about major cultural differences that determine how land assignments and housing are handled in some tribal communities. However, the issue of overcrowding can be addressed relatively quickly. Unfortunately, the financial and management resources are not available for many cash-strapped tribes. This makes grant funding like the HUD grant important and highly sought-after, as housing entities with only the strongest plans get awarded.
The Pueblo of Jemez was one of the awardees and plans to build the beginning phases of a subdivision for its community members. Greta Armijo, executive director of the pueblo’s Housing Authority, was happy about the news. “This has, quite honestly, been an effort that was started many years ago but was never successful. This funding couldn’t have happened at a better time; the land is now ready. Water, sewage and electricity are there; we just never had the funds to start the project. But now we do, and we are thankful and ready to get started!”
She went on to talk about COVID and the overcrowding situation. “During COVID we were good about keeping track of our numbers of cases; but at one point, we had nearly 100 families in quarantine during the height of the pandemic. So that was eye-opening. To give you an idea of overcrowding, we have had an instance of a multi-generational home with nearly 20 occupants. You have grandparents, their children and their grandchildren, plus other family members. So you can see how this could become dangerous quickly. To stop the spread of COVID, families like that had to be split up and quarantined. Some have had to seek shelter in quarantine facilities offered by the Pueblo of Pojoaque and Buffalo Thunder Casino, nearly one hour and a half away. We literally had no more vacant units [homes] to place people. The second option was Albuquerque, which is still an hour away for us.”
Jemez Pueblo Governor Michael Toledo, Jr. said, “Lack of housing in our tribal community has been an issue for a long time. During the pandemic that was more evident. The new funding will allow the Pueblo of Jemez to build much-needed homes to ensure that our families have a safe place to live.”
This will be the second phase of a strategic housing plan for the Pueblo of Acoma, which has been in the works for over a decade. This wait time exemplifies the need for help. This was just four out of 21 tribes in N.M.—all of which need help like this. Until that assistance comes, that bathroom line at grandmas starts at 4am; no time for selfies.