Perspectives

Home – What It Means to Native American Families

Kellie CoffeyNative American tribes are dispersed widely throughout the U.S. and live predominantly in rural areas. When it comes to housing finance, they're considered one of the most underserved populations in the country. The Duty to Serve rule1 issued by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) directs us to improve the availability of mortgage financing for low- and moderate-income families, and specifically calls for a focus on federally recognized Native American tribes because of their unique circumstances and historical lack of access to mortgage lending.2

The rich culture, traditions, and spiritual beliefs of Native Americans can be traced back thousands of years and influence how they live today. The people, the community, the land, and the family home remain the center point of Native American families.

To better understand the unique cultural views on homeownership among Native Americans living on tribal lands, including the motivation and barriers to homeownership, we conducted individual interviews3 with a small sample of lower-income Native Americans. The individuals interviewed are active tribal members, and they either recently purchased or plan to purchase their first homes on tribal land within the year. The study was conducted in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico, across seven tribes.4

Native American Homeownership Findings

Key Findings include:

  • Research participants typically cited large families, with strong kinship ties and expansive social connections within their pueblo. The desire for homeownership is primarily driven by a desire for independence and privacy.
  • The "family home" and its connection to the land are central to tribal life, both for personal identity and the pueblo community. Homeownership is generally not viewed as a means of building wealth. Participants feel deeply connected to the land and their pueblo and take pride in their cultural traditions of making others feel welcome. A strong responsibility to care for their elders and extended families results in ensuring that there is a family home.
  • The decision to live on tribal land is driven by both financial and non-financial reasons. In addition to the desire to stay close to family and tribal culture, many mentioned the benefit of the lower cost of living, given no cost for the land itself and no property taxes.
  • Most participants live paycheck to paycheck with little to no savings. Additionally, most reported being generally conservative with their finances, worrying about overspending, and preferring not to use credit cards.
  • Most learned the importance of budgeting and building credit through real life experiences and past mistakes. Almost all mentioned the need to repair or rebuild credit on the path to homeownership. Some admitted to previously having credit scores in the 300-400 range.
  • In general, participants seemed reluctant to seek advice by sharing financial and other personal details about their lives. Even partnered couples often do not know their partner's income or spending and saving habits. Many could not name any trusted financial advisors, other than those who helped with their specific loan.
  • Feeling safe, secure, and guided through the entire home purchase process are key emotional needs. Although the process of buying a home on tribal land often takes years, not months, and is complex, most do not view this as a barrier to homeownership. Many actively participate in the construction or renovation of their homes.

It is well known that Native Americans face homeownership challenges, including poor or thin credit, lack of resources, and inexperience with the home-buying process. Despite the challenges, independent homeownership is extremely important to many Native Americans for many different reasons.  Our research indicates that Native American families pride themselves on their identity, as well as their cultural and emotional connection to their home, their people, and their land. These beliefs support and reinforce their overall commitment to homeownership. While there are many whitepapers on the homeownership challenges Native Americans face, this research provides unique and rare insight into what "homeownership" means for tribal members themselves.

To learn more, read our full study findings, "Native American Homeownership Qualitative Research."

Kellie Coffey
Product Development Manager – Rural Initiatives
Single-Family Duty to Serve

September 27, 2018

The author thanks Marvin Ginn, Rose Marquez, Anne McGrath, and the individuals who participated in this research for their valuable contributions to the design and execution of the study. Of course, all errors and omissions remain the responsibility of the author.

Opinions, analyses, estimates, forecasts and other views of Fannie Mae's Economic & Strategic Research (ESR) Group or of research participants reflected in this commentary should not be construed as indicating Fannie Mae's business prospects or expected results, are based on a number of assumptions, and are subject to change without notice. How this information affects Fannie Mae will depend on many factors. Although the ESR group bases its opinions, analyses, estimates, forecasts and other views on information it considers reliable, it does not guarantee that the information provided in this commentary is accurate, current or suitable for any particular purpose. Changes in the assumptions or the information underlying these views could produce materially different results. The analyses, opinions, estimates, forecasts and other views published by the ESR group represent the views of that group as of the date indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of Fannie Mae or its management.

1 The FHFA issued a final rule on December 13, 2016 to implement the Duty to Serve provisions mandated by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008. The statute requires the Government-Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) to serve three specified underserved markets – manufactured housing, affordable housing preservation, and rural housing – by increasing the liquidity of mortgage financing, for very low-, low-, and moderate-income families. The rule requires each Enterprise to adopt a three-year (from 2018 to 2020) Underserved Markets Plan to fulfill their Duty to Serve obligations in each underserved market. For details about the Duty To Serve Program, please see https://www.fhfa.gov/PolicyProgramsResearch/Programs/Pages/Duty-to-Serve.aspx

2 There are 567 federally recognized tribes today and each has a unique structure of governance, culture, history, and identity. In addition, reservation land is held "in trust" for Native American tribes by the federal government. There is no monetary value associated with the land. Individual Native Americans cannot own their land and, as a result, cannot build equity. This prevents them from capitalizing on numerous homeownership benefits that others enjoy.

http://www.thehomestory.com/focusing-native-american-homeownership-duty-serve/

3 Qualitative methodologies are used to discover deeper insights and directions. These findings are exploratory in nature and are not intended to be projectable to a larger population.

4 Twenty-six (26) individual in-depth interviews were conducted with lower-income Native Americans who are active tribal members who recently purchased, or plan to purchase this year, their first homes on tribal trust lands in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Interview participants are members of the following seven pueblos: Pueblo of Jemez, Pueblo of Laguna, Pueblo of Nambe, Pueblo of Okay Owingeh, Pueblo of Pojoaque, Pueblo of Sane Felipe, and Pueblo of Santa Clara. A mix of central-location interviews and in-home interviews were conducted on April 17-22, 2018. All research participants have jobs with regular paychecks (weekly or biweekly). Most had stated annual incomes in the $30,000-$60,000 range, and most were in the 30- to 40-year old age range. For more research methodology details, please see the research report.