Housing USA: Home On The Reservation

6 min read

Indian tribes are a unique American subculture, both connected to, and sovereign from, the United States

Oakville, WA—In the space between Portland and Seattle lies a unique rural character that, perhaps even more than those two great cities, defines the Pacific Northwest. In the foothills of the majestic Mt. Rainier lies an endless stretch of pine-covered hills and berry farms, sitting below the temperamental skies. Another common feature here, as with other parts of the rural west, are Indian reservations.

For example, the Chehalis reservation, located in tiny Oakville, is part of a patchwork of regional tribes, and one of roughly 300 reservations in the U.S. Like with other tribes, the Chehalis have an interesting relationship with our federal government, sitting in a grey area between sovereignty and dependency. I was curious to see how, under this semi-autonomous model, housing policy worked for the tribe. So recently, after leaving Seattle for points further south, I got a tour from two of its leaders.

The Chehalis Indians have a long history in the region, having for generations lived off the land and fished the region’s salmon-filled waters. According to the 2000 Census, the tribal population is now 691, spread over 4,215 acres of housing developments, farms and forests that sit within these foothills.

Upon entering the reservation, I found several administrative buildings, and went in to meet Harry Pickernell, the tribal chairman, and James Gutierrez, head of the housing authority. Then we drove around to look at the housing.

The history of Chehalis’ housing is, as with most reservations, one of heavy federal involvement. The mistreatment of Indians early in America’s history is well-known, marked by their forced western exile during the mid-1800s. Since then, the U.S. government has tried making amends, partly by providing housing.

In 1887, the Dawes Act designated separate land for Indian tribes, subdividing it into lots that would accommodate housing. Another act in 1934—better known as “the Indian New Deal”—appropriated money for economic development. And funds have continued to flow in ever since, although the process has evolved to give reservations more control over spending. This makes sense, as reservations already function more or less like municipalities, albeit ones managed from the top-down. The Chehalis tribe has its own health services, police, governance, and of course, housing authority.

So in 1996, the Department of Housing and Urban Development established a housing block grant system that would go to different tribes, and be used at their discretion. Today, tribes on average receive $1.1 million annually from this grant—totaling $650 million.

On Chehalis, there are several hundred homes, and the older ones are largely owner-occupied (although anyone living on the reservation must be a tribal member, or related to one). The newer development, though, was due in part to these grants, and organized by a housing authority that wears many hats. It is the landlord for 71 units, says Gutierrez, and rents them out at subsidized rates. It is a financier for tribal members wanting to take out mortgages and own homes. And it even plays developer, buying land and contracting out the construction process to tribal members. In 2016, for example, Gutierrez used a chunk of that year’s HUD grant to buy new farmland from outside the reservation, incorporate it into the reservation’s boundaries, and then subdivide it for market-rate housing.

This speaks to the economic development vision that defines Chehalis and other tribes. Although Indian reservations are known—rightfully, in some cases—as sinkholes for unemployment and dependency, many achieve at least a quasi-private-sector growth model. For example, the Chehalis tribe owns, among other things, a restaurant, some convenience stores, two construction companies, a resort lodge, and a casino.

These provide jobs for tribal members, and the money generated gets thrown back into services. Pickernell said that since the completion of Lucky Eagle Casino in 1995, which is adjacent to the reservation and was packed on the day I visited, the area has boomed, giving the tribe money for a health center, recreation center, and, of course, more housing.

For these reasons, the HUD money was not viewed by either Gutierrez or Pickernell as a necessity, and was perhaps even an albatross. Despite being a grant, the money often has stipulations, said Gutierrez, that make housing more expensive. Contractors hired with HUD money must, under Davis-Bacon laws, get paid local prevailing wages, which in the area can be $35/hour. It also comes with onerous environmental review requirements.

The leaders said that the tribe’s goal was to generate enough revenue internally that it would not need HUD money; and for tribal members to earn enough that they don’t qualify for subsidies anyway.

“All tribal issues,” said Guiterrez, “really boil down to sovereignty, and tribes controlling their own destiny by being able to increase their economic base.”

So what does the Chehalis tribe’s housing actually look like? Having never been on an Indian reservation, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I soon realized while driving with the two that it looked like so much other American housing, especially in lower-income rural areas. The standalone units were small, typically falling within the 1,000 to 1,500 square-foot range. And they had a modest—if not run-down—quality about them, with some units well-maintained, and others with lagging repairs and messy front yards.

The apartment housing was centered near the administrative and service buildings, which served as somewhat of a de facto town square for the reservation. Average one-bedroom apartments go for about $500/month. The reservation’s peripheries were defined by small, detached sprawl housing, which sells for around $145,000. Gutierrez said more of these outer units were needed, to ease the potential for apartment overcrowding, which is a problem on reservations, since Indians sometimes cram together to avoid going homeless.

In this sense, the Chehalis reservation could have been any small municipality. Like the rest of America, it has public services to fund and populations to accommodate, and achieving this depends on its ability to grow economically. The tribe’s housing approach—regardless of outside funding—is central to this developmental vision.

Story Contacts:
Harry Pickernell, Chairman, Chehalis Reservation

James Gutierrez, Executive Director
Chehalis Tribal Housing Authority