Facing severe housing shortages, Tribes urge Biden to nominate an indigenous HUD secretary

Tribal governments from across North America — including the largest, the Navajo Nation — are pleading with President-elect Joe Biden to nominate an indigenous person to serve as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in his administration.

Indigenous communities, often located in remote expanses of rural America, suffer from the most severe housing shortages on the continent, with the highest rates of overcrowded and substandard housing.  Because of complicated colonial legal constructs that were designed to prevent indigenous economic development and nation-building, reservation housing often takes the longest time to construct.

A lack of water and utility infrastructure in many reservation communities also make it a costly and tedious problem to address.

Biden’s critics say that an indigenous nominee would help the administration punt on the much larger, more controversial, and far more difficult problem to solve: the deplorable state of America’s massive federally-funded urban public housing authorities.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) — which poorly manages a $110 billion portfolio of real estate across the five boroughs — requires more than $30 billion merely to bring its 144,000 apartment units to code.  Nationwide, federal housing projects could require more than $180 billion to modernize.  Everything from asbestos abatement, to led paint removal, and installing modern-era water and heating systems are required.

But the controversy surrounding the issue of public housing isn’t limited to budgetary concerns — it drives a wedge right through the Democratic Party’s political coalition, by dividing socialist thinkers on the left with free-market pragmatists at the center of the political spectrum.  

Rather than sweeping federal interventions in local neighborhoods — which have been disastrous — centrists want to enable the market to bring a larger supply of affordable units into the marketplace.  They blame rent control laws for limiting the market’s ability to supply new units, and in effect exacerbating the affordability crisis that many of America’s most Democrat-run cities have suffered for decades. Some moderates argue that the buildings should be privatized, with the sale proceeds used to fund mortgage lending programs for public housing tenants.

It’s a controversy that Biden is likely to avoid because the politics are unwinnable.  If he bows to the progressive left, he’s likely to lose control of the House of Representatives by losing the few suburban swing districts that the party was able to narrowly hang on to this election cycle.

Rural and reservation housing shortages are much easier to solve.

Nominating an indigenous person to cheerlead the aggressive deployment of prefabricated housing units in rural America is a much easier policy prerogative to execute — and much easier for the administration to appear bold, decisive, and determined.

If he does nominate an indigenous person to lead HUD, the most likely candidate would be Jacqueline Johnson-Peta (Tlingit).  Johnson-Peta is the longest-serving executive director in the history of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the largest and most representative Indian civil rights group in the United States.

Johnson-Peta is an Alaska Native, a remote rural population that suffers badly from housing shortages.  She served as a HUD official in the Clinton administration, and currently runs a public housing authority in Juneau.


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