Grantees & Grantmaking | August 3, 2023

Ten Years of Impact: How South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition Changes Systems to Boost Homeownership

By Katti Gray    

A pioneering coalition achieves 10 years of steady growth and breakthroughs, ensuring that Native Americans reap the multiple benefits of buying a home.

At this year’s meeting of Native housing strategists from across her home state, Lakota Federal Credit Union’s manager and chief loan officer Shayna Ferguson (Oglala Sioux) was touting some historic victories.

On the Pine Ridge Reservation—where she was born and reared, bearing witness to a scarcity of resources but also a will to meet people’s needs—she’d soon sign on the dotted line to turn another Native tenant into a first-time homebuyer.

“I don’t think any other credit unions are doing mortgage lending on [tribal] trust land in South Dakota. Our credit union is leading the way,” said a full-throated, jubilant Ferguson.

She discussed that win while traveling through the Crow Creek Reservation. She was riding a bus loaded with individuals who, like her, were either members of the South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition (comprised of representatives and organizations from all nine of South Dakota’s Native tribes), or were government housing officials, bankers, philanthropists, or other ardent Coalition supporters.

Elsie Meeks (Oglala Lakota), former Northwest Area Foundation board member and founder of the Coalition, speaks at the group’s 10th annual conference alongside Tawney Brunsch (Oglala Sioux), Coalition secretary and executive director of Lakota Funds.

The Coalition’s impact is huge—it’s building a “whole infrastructure” for homeownership.

What drives support for the Coalition is its multifold strategy to promote and create homeownership for Native people, who disproportionately face barriers to owning a residence.

The Coalition creates paths to homeownership through innovative mortgage lending programs. And it provides internships for HVAC techs, plumbers, construction workers, and other positions, eventually adding these professionals to the payrolls of Native-owned construction and construction-related companies. This expands the capacity to not only fund, but also erect more homes.

The Coalition’s impact is national. One example comes from a pilot project it developed in partnership with the US Department of Agriculture’s 502 direct lending program for low- and moderate-income single-family homeowners.

“Coalition members gave out more loans to tribal members in 10 months than the federal government had in 10 years,” said Tawney Brunsch (Oglala Sioux), Coalition secretary and executive director of Lakota Funds, a Native community development financial institution (CDFI) that is the Coalition’s fiscal agent.

The Coalition’s wide-ranging efforts and achievements are impressive, Northwest Area Foundation Program Officer Jen Racho said.

“They’re not just building one home at a time. What they’re doing is creating a whole infrastructure. They’re helping Native homebuyers, construction companies, workers, and banks. They’re literally changing the financial system to make sure more resources flow to Native homebuyers.”

Homeownership for Native Americans is about sovereignty and justice.

There’s a complex relationship between sovereign nations within the United States and the US government.

For starters, the federal government, not Native tribes, holds legal title to tribal land. That means Native communities can’t offer up the land as collateral. Consequently, commercial banks aren’t able to reclaim property if mortgage debt is unpaid. It’s no surprise, then, that the banks seldom do business with tribes or make loans to tribal members for homeownership.

It’s an irony and an injustice in the view of many Native people, including those who arrived for the Coalition’s 10th annual conference, June 6–8, 2023, at Crow Creek, the latest in the rotation of tribes to host the annual event.

Crow Creek had its own reasons to celebrate. Soon, ground would be broken for construction of its first new homes for Native mortgagors since 1996 and first new rental units since 2008—projects that present another great opportunity to partner with the Coalition.

Darrell Zephier (Hunkpati Dakota), a participant in the drum circle at the Coalition’s 10th annual conference.

The Coalition is responding in ways that put tribes’ needs first.

The Coalition is changing financial systems to make them more fully responsive to Native needs for housing and finance. These changes are long overdue. 

As the White House reported in March 2023, Native Americans are seven times more likely than other Americans to live in overcrowded, dilapidated homes and five times more likely not to have sufficient plumbing, kitchens, and heating systems.

The troubles largely result from lack of access to credit for mortgages and home-improvement loans. They also result from systemic shortages of Native individuals who are trained and certified in the building trades, and who are available to work on tribal land.

However, for the past eight years the Coalition has created roles for building trades interns. Eighty percent of its 2021 intern class were hired full time and now earn competitive, livable wages. This summer, the Coalition has 70 interns spread across four of the nine member tribes.

Additionally, for seven years, the Coalition has been enrolling Native workers in building inspection courses. Currently, none of the nine tribes has adopted building codes ensuring that new homes are structurally and legally sound. The network of inspectors is critical to creating those standards, Tawney said.

The Coalition is changing financial systems to make them more fully responsive to Native needs for housing and finance. These changes are long overdue.

As Coalition membership has increased, so has impact and momentum.

The Coalition’s efforts to change some current realities have resulted in several significant accomplishments.

Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs administers the Native American Direct Loan program, which provides home loans to veterans living on tribal lands. Together, the VA and Native CDFI’s are leveraging their respective resources to help more Native veterans achieve homeownership, said Tawney, adding, “It’s a parity issue.”

“We are having some great successes, including with our legislative and policy work,” said Coalition Chair Sharon Vogel (Cheyenne River Sioux), executive director of the Cheyenne River Housing Authority, citing examples of the Coalition’s achievements.

She continued, “Once the VA realized we are staying in this game, they stopped giving us so much bureaucratic rhetoric, telling us what their handbooks said. They actually do understand and embrace change that they see is more cost-effective and efficient.”

Eric Shepherd (Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux), Coalition vice chair and Sisseton Wahpeton Housing Authority’s executive director.

Coalition Vice Chair Eric Shepherd (Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux), the Sisseton Wahpeton Housing Authority’s executive director said: “Before this Coalition existed, when buckets of resources were put out there, we tribes boxed ourselves in. We competed against each other. What we have now is a shared purpose . . . a line of succession and a blueprint.

“We’re clear that there is strength in our numbers.”

“What we have now is a shared purpose . . . a line of succession and a blueprint. We’re clear that there is strength in our numbers.” 

Eric Shepherd (Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux)
Vice Chair, South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition
Executive Director, Sisseton Wahpeton Housing Authority
South Dakota Coalition models Native housing development for other states.

That strength showed at Crow Creek, where the upcoming new housing is a sure sign of what results from the Coalition’s cooperative efforts. Being constructed in four phases, the project will yield 60 new residences. It would be great if all of them, not just 20, were slated to be sold outright to homeowners, says Joseph Shields (Crow Creek Sioux), the Crow Creek Housing Authority’s executive director. Nevertheless, he adds, “This is big. For us, this is very, very big.”

Aerial view of Fort Thompson, SD, on the Crow Creek Reservation.

On the Rosebud Reservation, there’s a similar excitement, says Archie Marshall (Rosebud Sioux), a lead-certified inspector for Rosebud Sioux Tribe American Rescue Plan Act Construction. Right now, mainly using Native contractors, it has $22 million to build new homes and $3 million to bring some existing homes out of disrepair.

If those older houses—with boarded-up windows, foundations askew, leaky propane cylinders, and absolutely no insulation—were in other locales, they’d likely be condemned as uninhabitable.

“These were built in 1965—not for this climate, and not always according to code,” adds Archie, a 36-year construction industry veteran.

The Coalition underwrote his training and testing to gain International Code Council certification. Action like this from the Coalition is making a big impact on workforce development in the building and trades industry for Native Americans.

“We’ve set a model that is being replicated,” Coalition Chair Sharon Vogel said. “We’ve got other states that are making their own [Native housing] coalitions based on their needs and resources. I’m really proud of our advocacy and the example we’ve set.”

Said Northwest Area Foundation’s Jen Racho: “It takes a ton of intentional relationship building and strategic thinking to achieve the impact that the Coalition is having. And it takes all sorts of different players in the Coalition—federal, state, nonprofits, community members—to make these changes happen.”

“We’ve set a model that is being replicated. We’ve got other states that are making their own [Native housing] coalitions based on their needs and resources. I’m really proud of our advocacy and the example we’ve set.”

Sharon Vogel
Chair, South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition

Photo top: Tawney Brunsch (Oglala Sioux), Coalition secretary and executive director of Lakota Funds.