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Investing where traditional banks won't: Building success and community in Indian Country

4/16/2017

Rollin Wood, executive director, Native Partnership for Housing

Challenge: The Navajo Nation covers more than 27,000 square miles. Seventy percent of those living in the nation earn less than $15,000 per year. Many banks will not lend to residents of sovereign Native American Nations out of fear they will not be able to foreclose on delinquent loans.

An octagonal house in New Mexico

The Native Partnership for Housing (NPH) is the only NeighborWorks America network member focused exclusively on improving housing opportunities for Native Americans. It was created in 1996 as the Navajo Partnership for Housing to provide flexible homeownership financing opportunities for residents of the nation. Its founding goal was to empower Navajo families with the knowledge, skills and understanding needed to complete beneficial real estate transactions. The need was great then and is even greater today.

There are approximately 330,000 Navajo, of which 190,000 live on the Navajo Nation. Covering 27,413 square miles, or 17 million acres, the Navajo Nation is approximately the size of the state of West Virginia. It encompasses large portions of northern Arizona, northern New Mexico and southeastern Utah. According to a recent study conducted by the Navajo Housing Authority, there is a need for more than 34,000 new homes in the nation; an additional 34,000 homes require rehabilitation.

Furthermore, the concept of owning your own home, land and other property is a foreign concept to many Navajos. If raised in a traditional manner, the Navajo believe "Mother Earth, the land" cannot be owned. To complicate matters, most of the land is held in trust, controlled by the Navajo Nation with oversight by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. It can take two to three years for a family to acquire a home-site lease.

Prior to our founding, there were no mortgage lenders willing to provide loans to nation residents. Over the past 20 years, we have provided more than $50 million in loans and down-payment assistance, helping nearly 600 native families purchase their own homes.

A group of Native Americans hold up their homeownership certificatesIn 2016, we changed our name to the Native Partnership for Housing to communicate our expansion of service delivery beyond the borders of the Navajo Nation and adjacent communities to members of other native nations in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. The federal government recognizes more than 43 other tribes in New Mexico and Arizona alone.

In addition, considering that most Native Americans live off a reservation, this market is equally important to serve. The name change is a step in that direction. When asked to describe NPH's new market, we now say "Native America!"

Central to our work is education—particularly related to homebuying. On average, we have learned that for every 30 clients inquiring about and beginning the homebuyer process, only two to three are ready to become homebuyers. Common issues are lack of funds for down payments and closing costs, poor credit and inconsistent income. NPH staff is dedicated to helping all clients facing barriers to homeownership qualify for a mortgage. Over the past 20 years, NPH's trainers have provided financial fitness and homebuyer education to 3,326 families.

To serve such a far-flung client base, we employ a combination of classroom and distance training through web- based systems. We expect that once our new marketing and online homeownership courses are fully implemented, the number of families who complete the NPH homebuyer education course will quadruple to 65 per month.

When Patrick Giago, an Oglala Sioux from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and his wife Lucy, who is Navajo, bought their first home after living in Washington, DC, and Arizona as renters, they found NPH to be a great resource. They were looking for a home, not just a house—where they could retire after a lifelong career working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They found that home with our help.
 
Patrick describes his new neighborhood as the "Hollywood of the Navajo Nation." The house is beautiful, in stark contrast to HUD housing, trailers and mobile homes in other parts of the reservation. He also credits our first-time homebuyer classes to his transformation into an astute and well-prepared homeowner. When his brother visited the Giagos' new house, he asked how they managed to buy such a beautiful home. We are so proud that their response was "NPH!"

Although NPH is one small player working in an area of vast need, we are expanding vitally needed services throughout Indian Country to enable residents to build, purchase or renovate their own homes.

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