Economic conditions have improved on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was told Wednesday.
But Fort Belknap Tribal Council Member Nathaniel Mount told the committee that housing problems on the reservation, caused by the bureaucracy in agencies created to help Natives, have been responsible for the many difficulties and endanger continued success.
Primarily he blamed paperwork at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and private lending institutions for the delays.
Mount was invited to testify before the committee by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who vowed to help clear hurdles in the path to more home ownership on the reservation.
Daines said home ownership would help Natives achieve middle-class status and the government should be working to help them.
He quoted Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, who said, “No one washes a rental car.”
Mount said the average income per family on part of the Fort Belknap Reservation is about $12,000 a year. The last housing built by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development was in 1994, he said.
Now, there is a critical shortage of homes.
It’s not unusual for three generations of a family to live in a house designed for one generation, Mount told the committee.
The problem is more severe for people looking to buy their own homes.
Island Mountain Development Corp., a tribal-owned organization, has been successful in bringing more business and jobs to the reservation, Mount said. That has prompted a reduction in the unemployment rate in the southern end of the reservation, the Hays area.
People who get some of these good jobs are looking for places to live, he said. He’s afraid some people will give up on the reservation if they can’t find housing.
Mount said he was a perfect example.
When he returned to the reservation from law school, he had to move back in with his parents. There was no housing available.
“Simply put, we have no place to live,’ Mount told the senators.
Digitizing records and adding staff to the BIA would help things, he said.
Daines said he would work with tribal council members to make home ownership easier.
He said he was concerned because paperwork from the BIA, that should be ready in days often takes months. And work by private lenders that should be done in weeks has taken two or three years.
Daines asked Darryl LaCounte, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who was also at the Senate hearing, about the delays.
LaCounte said he was upset by the problems, and the last time he knew about things they were working well.
He vowed to rectify the problem.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., repeatedly questioned LaCounte, skeptical that the agency would do enough to solve the problem.
He too said home ownership is critical on the reservations.
“The fact of the matter is that if you want to have a healthy community, you’ve got to have housing,” Tester said. “The folks who are in this room and have seen the situation in Indian Country know that housing is horrible.”
LaCounte said problems with private lenders will be more difficult to solve, he said. Private lenders are very reluctant to loan money to Indian Country, LaCounte said.
LaCounte said he was listed as a reference for Mark Azure, who wanted to buy a home when he was still chair of the Fort Belknap Tribal Council.
He said he could see no reason why Azure wouldn’t be promptly approved, but there were mounds of paperwork and long delays
He said he doesn’t know if the loan has yet been approved.
Email John Kelleher at firstname.lastname@example.org