Louie Sheridan, Jr. began working in Indian Housing in 1996, the same year as the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act became law.
The act — commonly referred to as NAHASDA — pulled a variety of funding sources under a single block grant program and established consistent annual funding for tribal housing projects. It was, at the time, a game changer for tribes that had otherwise relied on competitive grant programs that left them contending with each other, as well as other marginalized groups, for necessary funding.
It was an early example of a law designed in tandem with tribal consultation, rather than through assumptions and external discussions on what tribes needed, Sheridan said.
“It was a law influenced by tribes, for tribes, and not just Congress taking action and doing their thing with probably limited information. Tribal leaders were able to speak directly to what they thought housing should look like moving forward,” Sheridan told Tribal Business News in a recent interview.
Eventually, Sheridan landed an executive director position with the National American Indian Housing Council, where he spent 10 years helping build technical assistance and support programs. These days, he works with the Housing Assistance Committee, a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit aimed at improving housing in rural communities. Sheridan sat down with Tribal Business News to discuss the successes and missteps of NAHASDA’s implementation, and what the program needs to evolve. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you get started in working in Indian housing?
After graduating from university, I wanted to go back to my reservation in Nebraska to try to help out. My grandpa always told me, “Just because you go to school, go to college, that doesn't make you anybody. It gives you responsibility in that you should use your education for something good. Maybe someday you might go back to the reservation and be helpful there.”
That was really impactful for me, and I always remembered that. So when I graduated, that's exactly what I did — I went back to my reservation and tried to work. It didn't go real smooth at first; I ended up cutting wood for several months. That was in 1996.
The same year the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act became law, right?
It was the first Native-specific legislation passed. Prior to that, we were all under the rules and regulations of the 1937 Housing Act, and that Housing Act was in response to the Great Depression and hard times, and it wasn't designed for Indian Country.
You know as well as I do that at that time we weren't even citizens yet, or just barely. It wasn't really conducive to tribal situations. A lot of those programs were meant for operating in inner cities, where the public housing has tenements and high rises. You don’t have high rises in Indian Country.
The timing just came together, then.
It just happened to be a confluence of timing, I guess; NAHASDA had just passed, I was looking to specialize in something, and that was really my first involvement in any kind of housing at all workwise. Here I am, 25 years later.
How did NAHASDA affect things, in your experience?
(At the time), every participant organization was primarily operating on reactive planning. They were waiting for a NOFA (notice of funding availability) to come across their desk and say "I think we qualify for this one or I think we could gain that one." So that's how they were planning … by what was being offered. It was reactive.
How did NAHASDA change that?
What NAHASDA did for tribes was immediately cause them to transition into a proactive mindset and proactive planning, as it required tribes and their housing programs to submit two annual plans — a one-year plan and a five-year plan — that would lay out how they were planning on spending their allocated dollars in their communities.
Immediately, (it was) completely different from what Indian Country had been doing for years and years. It put the onus onto tribal communities to really think about what (their) community needed … (and then) work on it bit by bit as part of (their) plan.
It also removed the element of competition, didn’t it?
It took all of the available funding that HUD's ONAP (Office of Native American Programs) had for tribal housing programs into a single fund under NAHASDA, the Indian Housing Block Grant. The red tape was minimized, and the only thing you needed to do to acquire your annual funding, was to submit the plans, hopefully on time, and then you get your money for your community. Once you know what you're going to have, you have a greater opportunity to create a pretty solid plan that's comprehensive and will meet your needs.
That meant more comprehensive and consistent planning.
When it was competitive, tribes had to really compete with each other for who was going to get what. If one tribe won, there were two or three tribes that lost in those competitive rounds. The competition has been taken away, so we're not necessarily competing against each other; we've got guaranteed funding every year.
How did they allocate funds to particular tribes?
That was a positive thing for some, and not such a positive thing for others. Because the way they determined the amount of money you'd get annually, they'd taken a snapshot of your finances over time, and made that the minimum funding level that you were to receive over the next five years.
For tribes who had successfully acquired grant dollars under the '37 Housing Act, and maybe their accounts were flush with grant dollars plus operating dollars, those programs were sitting pretty good. Other (tribal) programs that didn't have a successful grant writer and grant writing program, their snapshot in time could look very much different, as far as their minimum funding was going to go.
It's still not enough funding-wise, of course, but there is a lot less stress since it's non-competitive.
How much funding would be enough?
That’s the number one thing: dollars. Not every problem is solved by throwing money at it, but man, I'd sure like to give it a shot to see what our communities could do. What they could look like if we had the funding that we actually need.
There are things that could change, even things that should change, but from my perspective, I think it comes down to that almighty dollar. Having been an executive director of a housing authority, I know what it is to kind of have to look in the left pocket and see what you got, look in the right pocket and see what you got, and then stretch that to make all the bills.
You need to solve more of the problems at once, is what you’re saying?
What if we had the money we need? We could get better training and education for our staff members to empower our staff … get them up to speed and knowledgeable with expertise and finance and construction, business. Unfortunately, we don't typically have those resources in our communities already, (so) we have to hire out.
What if we had the money to build those resources and money to hire those professional folks we lack, professional property management and development folks to help us implement best practices on a large scale, as opposed to building a couple of houses every couple of years?
If you've got 100 families on your waiting list, and you're able to string the funds together to build two houses — just basic boxes, no frills — then also being able to rehab the existing homes and manage your current housing stock … it's just a constant game of playing catch up — and ending up behind.
You've built two houses, maybe you've got two families off the waiting list, but then there's been seven or eight families that have joined that waiting list. What if we had the money to build the houses we need now?
So the biggest need is more funding.
I think there's enough opportunity, but we don't have enough money. Legislatively, I wouldn't be worried about periods and words and most things; my primary focus is where are the dollars at, so we can prevent grandma from having to haul her water every day? What if we had the dollars to get water to her house?
You've given me some of the tools. Give me all of them, and I'll show you what Indian Country can do.