housing and its discontents…

We recently met with the Cheyenne River Housing Authority, the tribal office responsible for managing federal housing programs on the reservation. It was founded on this reservation in 1963, and is funded by the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is often the scapegoat for the poor design and conditions of housing here.  Until the 1980’s, the Housing Authority had little control over its designs, and the mandated HUD designs were of poor quality. While the Housing Authority has historically been the main provider of new housing on the reservation, there are other housing organizations that have built similar designs with similar construction materials and techniques.  In general, these homes were not designed to withstand the harsh climate extremes. While it would be easy to blame the Housing Authority, HUD, and the other providers for substandard housing or maintenance, we have also seen that the politics of subsidized housing are not that simple.

Houses built by Housing Authority, Cherry Creek

Habitat for Humanity housing, Eagle Butte

Housing on the reservation often looks very similar, and while the Housing Authority has built the majority of the housing here, much of it has since been purchased outright and is thus no longer their maintenance responsibility.  However, the general state of housing, characterized by vinyl or wood siding, broken windows (often single pane), shingled or metal roof (preferable), and single-story timber frame design, is makeshift and in varied states of deterioration. The biggest problem we’ve heard from people regarding their housing is that the windows and doors are not tightly sealed and that they are expensive and/or impossible to heat and cool.  Houses tend to be drafty in the bitterly cold winters and hot in the summers (it was recently 109 degrees).  While double-pane windows are required by building code on the east coast, where winters don’t get nearly as cold as they do in South Dakota, here we’ve see many houses with single-pane windows showing few upgrades/replacements.  The Housing Authority assured us that they currently follow the International Building Code, however there is no Department of Buildings here.  Any inspection of a property would be by internal inspectors. Other builders have told us that there is no enforced code.

Current Housing Authority rental unit, Dupree

Some of the damage and poor condition of houses can be attributed to the maintenance (or lack thereof) by the various housing agencies, but some is also due to mistreatment and neglect by tenants.  Without a stake in one’s house, there is less incentive to upkeep or improve one’s space, especially when money is tight and homes are overcrowded.  Furthermore, a large percentage of subsidized housing can create an economic culture of poverty, where there is no incentive to invest in one’s home and there are more incentives to be unemployed than employed.  Here, Housing Authority rental housing is income based, so if you don’t work, you pay less or nothing at all.  If you do work, your government commodities (similar to rations and/or food stamps) can be taken away and rent will increase with your salary (until hitting a certain cap).  While many people do take pride in being independent, others choose to accept the handouts. For those who do work, rent remains a percentage of their income, so there is little incentive to earn more.

There is practically no private rental market on this reservation, so one must work with the Housing Authority or one of the other non-profits operating on the reservation to find a rental unit. This process is extremely slow, and the housing stock is relatively stagnant. The Housing Authority currently manages approximately 600 rental units on the reservation, while the waiting list for housing has over 400 people on it. The first person on the list for a one-bedroom house submitted their application in 1998. We imagine they may need more than a one bedroom, 12 years later.

The person we spoke with regarding the Housing Authority’s “modernization program” informed us that the oldest HUD designed houses from the 1960’s can have exterior walls constructed out of 2 x 4’s.  This doesn’t leave much room for insulation.  The “modernization” department is responsible for construction updates due to damages and normal wear and tear, but renovations can also be needed in the case of “tenant abuse.”  This is when the tenant so badly abuses the property that it requires renovation.  The way “modernization” works is that the Housing Authority periodically inspects their units and reports the “worst of the worst” conditions.  Those properties get put on a list for modernization, but a tenant cannot request their home to be modernized.  We’re hoping to see examples of houses before and after this modernization process next week, but were told that repairs can range from kitchen/bathroom updates to full interior renovations.

With regard to ownership, we met with a woman at the Housing Authority who is responsible for home ownership educational programs and funding. She spoke with us about their relationship to the reservation, the housing types they provide, the setbacks because of water shortage, and the Housing Authority’s vision for the future of housing on the reservation. She told us about several mortgage packages, educational programs and advisement that provide options and support for tribal members who are interested in purchasing a home. However, it is currently difficult to build new housing because of a water shortage, so they can only advise people on purchasing already built homes or trailers. In the past, the Housing Authority did have a rent-to-own program, but this is no longer available.

We were really excited to meet with the Housing Authority and hear their side of the story.  It appears that the biggest setback to creating new housing at the moment is the water shortage. In essence, the existing water pipes and reservoir for the reservation cannot accommodate the demand, and Tri-County Water, the sole provider for the reservation, has put a hold on new installations and water meters. A new water reservoir has been created but the funding hasn’t come in to lay new pipes and finish the pumping station.  This could take a couple of years to be completed.  Until then, there will be no new traditional water lines and thus, no new housing unless you pay for an alternative to the county water system.  At the moment, the Housing Authority does not plan to explore alternatives like digging wells or developing rainwater collection systems, as this is too costly for on their budget. Thus, they will not build until the water shortage is solved.

There have been roads and infrastructure laid for a new housing development near the main town of Eagle Butte, called Badger Park, which is currently on hold due to the water shortage. The plans for this community do include a number of new ideas and experiments, including alternative building techniques and updated designs by an architecture firm in Pierre.  These houses would be built in modular pieces by the Housing Authority on a lot in Eagle Butte, and then moved to their sites to be assembled and hooked up. We are planning to meet with this firm and other Housing Authority officials to discuss the details of these designs.

We also learned of an exciting project in the residential community of Cherry Creek which fell under the Housing Authority’s modernization program for rental units.  Six houses have to be moved to a new location in town because they are in a flood plain. The Housing Authority received government funding and will experiment using geothermal heating in these homes.  This could drastically reduce the cost of heating in the winter and provide an example for implementation of energy-conscious building techniques.

While we felt like our initial meeting at the Housing Authority provided a lot of new information about their scope of management and the housing stock, we still have more questions about specific building techniques and historic data.  We want access to the GIS maps that show land ownership, roads, utilities, geology and housing location/vintage, but are having trouble getting this information. We hope this will not be necessary, but an attorney for the Department of the Interior in Washington DC has advised us that we may have to file a Freedom of Information Act request if we keep getting blocked from accessing information that is public. We have now met with the BIA, Housing Authority, and Games, Fish and Parks, all of whom have been incredibly generous with their time and discussions of their work, but reluctant to share what we feel is important spatial information. Each organization has pointed us towards another to get this information, when they all have it in one form or another.

Abandoned house built by Housing Authority, Bridger

Abandoned house built by Housing Authority, Bridger

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