Communal culture, lack of cash have kept numbers low

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF: SUE ZALOKAR - Roberta Ortiz talks with Yesika Arévalo, of housing nonprofit Proud Ground, at last years Native American Youth and Family Center home ownership fair. NAYA has helped 125 local families purchase homes.Angelique Spotted Eagle has lived in Portland most of her life. A member of the Blackfoot tribe, she has conscientiously maintained her Native American identity, regularly attending powwows and Friday night Bow & Arrow Culture Club events at the Northeast Portland Native American Youth and Family Center with her son, Julius.

“I don’t know any Native Americans who own homes,” she says. “We don’t have a lot of role models in our community. Most everybody I know moved around a lot.”

In October, NAYA will host its ninth annual Native American homeownership fair, hoping to help Portland-area Native Americans deal with the process of buying a home in much the same way as it has helped Spotted Eagle.

Spotted Eagle grew up on public assistance with six brothers and sisters, so owning a home never seemed financially attainable. She also grew up with a cultural heritage that may have contradicted the idea behind homeownership.

Her mother’s rented house was always a welcoming, open one. Spotted Eagle recalls four families in her home — one in the basement, one in the attic, a relative on the couch and a tent with an uncle in the backyard. “I remember growing up communally,” she says.

The prevailing culture in many Native American tribes historically has been communal, says Leland Jones, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Pacific Northwest Region. Individual homeownership is in many ways the opposite of communal living, Jones says. So for those Native Americans on tribal land and off who want to own their homes, sometimes an adjustment in thinking is necessary along with the financial wherewithal.

Spotted Eagle says money was the single biggest obstacle she faced. Her husband, James Allman, is a full-time student, and the family had outstanding loans and marginal credit stretching back for years. She asked NAYA for assistance in 2010, and over the next three years she received counseling that helped her manage the debt problem and improve her credit rating.

NAYA advisers helped Spotted Eagle open an Individual Development Account from a state program that gives low-income Native American three matching dollars for every dollar they save toward the purchase of a first home. Participants are required to take financial and homebuyer education classes. Through the two-year program, Spotted Eagle was able to save $2,000, which was matched with $6,000. She used the $8,000 along with a $5,000 grant from NAYA to place a down payment on a $98,000, three-bedroom house in Southeast Portland’s Brentwood neighborhood last November.

The house was part of a program run by nonprofit Proud Ground that heavily discounts homes to qualified buyers in targeted neighborhoods, but stipulates that future sales of the homes can only be made to low-income first-time buyers.

Spotted Eagle is one of a slowly growing number of local success stories, says Loretta Kelly, homeowner program manager for NAYA.

Nationally, 47 percent of Native Americans and Native Alaskans living off tribal land own their homes, according to federal data. In Multnomah County, just 29 percent of Native Americans own their homes, compared with 55 percent of all county residents, according to Portland Housing Bureau data.

NAYA reports that Portland has the ninth largest Native American community in the United States. About 38,000 Native Americans live in Multnomah County.

The increase in Native American homeownership here is the result of a number of efforts, Kelly says. Fair housing and mortgage disclosure laws have helped lessen discrimination against Native Americans seeking to buy homes. NAYA’s education efforts also have played a role for people to whom the home-buying experience might seem beyond daunting.

“The big thing we do is provide a safe place for people to talk with realtors and loan officers and different folks like that to take away a little of the mystery of those professions,” Kelly says.

Since starting its homeownership work in 2006, NAYA has helped 125 local families purchase homes, about 70 percent of them Native American. Typically 100 to 150 people show up at NAYA’s annual home-buying fair.

In addition, a number of government initiatives such as the Individual Development Account program have begun to make a difference in the last decade or so. The most significant may be the HUD 184 program, which started operating about 10 years ago to

insure mortgages for Native Americans.

Lenders know they face little risk from Native American home buyers defaulting if they are covered by the 184 program, according to HUD’s Jones. If the homeowner is no longer able to pay his or her mortgage, HUD continues to make the payments and takes ownership of the property.

Nationally, HUD has helped finance 25,748 homes for Native Americans through the 184 program, more than 85 percent of them off tribal lands. In Oregon, the program has been used to help 516 Native American families buy homes, with numbers steadily increasing since the end of the recession.

Last year the 184 program was used by 74 Oregon Native Americans purchasing homes, and Jones says the number should be about the same for 2014. In 2010, 42 homes were purchased in Oregon using 184.

“People are getting more and more used to the program,” Jones says. Some are learning to overcome cultural mind-sets which simply don’t make it easy to buy a home, he adds.

Spotted Eagle says poverty was the greatest obstacle she faced in her struggle to buy a home. She doesn’t know how much her communal Native American background influenced her. She’s certain, however, that it is one part of her heritage she intends to leave behind.

“I just believe for my son I really want to change the culture in our lives,” she says. “We have a house now. We’re not going to be moving from apartment to apartment.”

The NAYA homeownership fair will be held 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, at the NAYA Family Center, 5135 N.E. Columbia Blvd. Native Americans and other low-income residents can learn about a variety of housing options, including the 184 Indian Home Loan Program. For details:

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