Bringing the Dream of Homeownership to American Indian Reservations

As a newly minted lawyer many years ago, I was offered an opportunity of a lifetime – an in-house attorney position with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at the tribe’s headquarters in Ft. Yates, North Dakota. But there was a problem.

I was drawn to that place where my grandfather grew up running along the banks of the Oahe River and to the land where my family has lived for many generations. I thought I’d live there too and give back to the community that helped shape and form my identity. In the end, I could not accept the offer.

Why not? Because there was no place for my family to live in Ft. Yates – and I could not make sense of commuting from Mandan or Bismarck every day while tending to the responsibilities of two young children at home 70 miles away.

Scarcity of housing and affordable housing options on most American Indian reservations is still a serious issue with dire consequence. Limited housing options prevent many more people from taking jobs, raising families, and building economies where businesses flourish and children thrive. Moreover, when families move away from the reservation because they cannot find suitable housing, the community is deprived of millions of dollars that could have been spent and invested in reservation-based goods and services.

The need for homeownership is stark. Twenty years ago, the Government Accountability Office could find just 91 mortgages extended on all of the nation’s hundreds of reservations during a five-year span. Although the number of mortgages has increased significantly since then, it still is tens of thousands short of filling the dire need and strong demand for reservation housing.

Why is homeownership so challenging on American Indian reservations? The biggest obstacle is the lengthy and complex mortgage lending process that frustrates both lenders and borrowers. Neither banks nor families can wait a year or more to close a loan, and prospective homebuyers often give up or move away. Another reason is that homeownership has not been an integral part of the economic development paradigm on many reservations. Too often, the American dream of homeownership evaporates at the boundaries of Native homelands. This has got to change.

As the director of the Center for Indian Country Development (CICD) at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, I am passionate about increasing homeownership opportunities on tribal lands. Why? The short answer: people and opportunity. The growing population of American Indian and Alaskan Natives needs better access to homeownership opportunities to reduce over-crowdedness, boost tribal economies, and build healthy, vibrant communities. Importantly, stable housing improves outcomes for families and overall community well-being.

To begin addressing these issues, the CICD established the National Native Homeownership Coalition, which immediately issued a call-to-action for a guide to developing and financing housing on reservations. The result is the Tribal Leaders Handbook on Homeownership, the first-ever comprehensive resource on the lending and development process and homeownership programs available in Indian Country.

What’s needed to increase mortgage lending and attract reservation investments? More lenders, better systems, and faster processing. On the mortgage side, for example, allowing more lenders to use federal programs will open up the full array of public and private loan products to reservation residents. For tribal communities, supporting homebuyer readiness programs creates financial capabilities with long term benefits throughout the community.  Equally important is developing an efficient federal title system that streamlines the system and recognizes the time sensitivity and collateral requirement of lending transactions.

One of the things I hope will happen from the use of the Handbook, from this impressive collection of information and resources, is that the next young lawyer or teacher or doctor who is offered a job assisting her tribe won’t have to think twice about saying yes.

Patrice Kunesh

Patrice Kunesh


Patrice Kunesh is the director of the Center for Indian Country Development of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.