Economy 4.0

Generations of housing red tape

David Brancaccio Dec 1, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: If you’re fortunate enough — or perhaps unfortunate enough — to own a home in this country, you know from bureaucracy: the mortgage application, the appraisals, the stacks of paperwork and endless possibilities for unhappy surprises at closing time. But count your blessings. Because that’s nothing compared to the ordeal of buying a house on a Native American reservation.

From our series Economy 4.0, Marketplace’s David Brancaccio looks at what it takes to become a homeowner in Pine Ridge, S.D.

David Brancaccio: Buying a house — that wobbly pillar of the American dream — is even more fraught in a place like Pine Ridge. After hundreds of years of treaties, a number of them broken, the reservation is a patchwork — some land is private, some of it is held in trust by the feds and some belongs to extended families.

So when Lambert Hawk decided to move back after decades of high prices and quakes out in California, he ran into a frustrating legacy: red tape. It started when he and his wife Mary put their names on a waitlist with the Oglala Lakota Tribal Housing Authority. And then they waited.

Lambert Hawk: I didn’t know you know that they turned me down, but they wouldn’t let me know. They said come back next year and put another application in, and as soon as I left they probably threw it in the trash.

The waitlists for housing here are crazy long, sometimes 25 years before you get a home. People have died waiting.

Fed up, Hawk contacted Emma “Pinky” Clifford.

Emma “Pinky” Clifford: Hello?

Clifford runs a nonprofit called the Partnership for Housing. It’s working with the local housing authority to make buying a house — well, easier. Driving around with Clifford, visitors are struck with the vastness of the reservation — as big as the states of Delaware and Rhode Island stitched together. The housing crisis here is not from a lack of open space.

Clifford: Geez, now I’m behind a big old tractor.

What’s weird is that everyone seems to already own a parcel of land, inherited from treaties and long-gone ancestors. But the land has been split, chopped and divided again: “fractionation” they call it. That makes ownership tough to prove. Some people don’t even know where their land is or how many others share ownership. Think of a pie, says Clifford.

Clifford: And we cut it into six pieces, and I had six children and 12 grandchildren. Each child would get a wedge, and they would have to split that wedge with their kids. It’s very, very tiny.

That, combined with the difficulty of putting in services like sewage or electricity to these dispersed bits of land, means that most people on Pine Ridge live packed into suburban-like cul-de-sacs where crime flourishes.

Paul Iron Cloud: I come home depressed about every night, for the need that’s out there. It’s great.

Paul Iron Cloud, director of tribal housing, says he needs 4,000 additional houses to meet the needs of the reservation’s 45,000 residents. That’s something he says is the federal government’s responsibility, spelled out in treaties.

Cloud: Those treaties are good as long the grass grows and the rivers flow, you know, that means forever.

He says since the government took pretty much everything from the Lakota Indians, the feds are supposed to take care of people’s needs. These days, that means 1,200 low-rent, government-built housing units, which are now generally overcrowded and falling apart.

But Lambert and Mary Hawk, the couple who moved back from California, had something many of their neighbors did not have in a reservation that is one of the very poorest places in America. The Hawks had some savings, and they used this savings to buy a little green house.

Happy ending? Not quite. There was a catch.

Hawk: We’re leasing the land, the lot I guess, we can’t buy it. So we’re just leasing it from the tribe. But I don’t know what the deal was — waiting lists, or they couldn’t do it, or something, you know.

So the house is now theirs, but not the land underneath, because of the reservation’s complex rules. This means the property is not that useful as a financial asset if they would ever want to borrow against the house or use it to trade up to something with more space. They joke about maybe separating the house they now own from the land they don’t.

Lambert Hawk: If we wanted, we could just pick the house up and move it.

Mary Hawk: Somebody did it next door.

Lambert Hawk: Next door, you see that open — look. I guess somebody bought the house and just…

Mary Hawk: Picked it up and moved it to their land!

A group of not-for-profits is now working with the Oglala Sioux tribe to try to streamline the way the reservation is managed, reforms that could someday bring more order to buying a place to live.

I’m David Brancaccio for Marketplace.

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