David Bland has worked in affordable housing and community development for 40 years.

Best known as the founder and chairman of Travois, a company that works on promoting housing and economic opportunities for American Indian, Alaska native, and native Hawaiian communities, Bland has added a new title to his resume—author.

David Bland
David Bland

He has recently released “Slings & Arrows: How Toxic Narratives Perpetuate Poverty in Indian Country,” a book that offers his insight and experience working in Indian Country.

Affordable Housing Finance caught up with Bland to ask him about the state of housing for Native Americans and the disparities that place their communities in danger of being hard hit by the coronavirus.

How would you describe the state of housing for Native Americans today?

Better, but not good. The primary funding mechanism for housing on reservations, the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA), remains woefully underfunded. Under the Obama administration, the White House and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took very seriously the government-to-government relationship tribes demand and deserve and worked collaboratively with tribal leaders to address not just housing but health care and education. That has come to an end. The historical animus against tribes that President Trump brazenly displayed prior to becoming president has now been exemplified by the intended termination of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal reservation in Massachusetts. It is both irrational and unjustified, and it is a metaphor for the relationship between tribes and the Trump administration. Make no mistake, Indian tribes are dependent on federal dollars far more than are cities and states. Remember also, because of the Trust status of land in much of Indian Country, tribes cannot levy property taxes, and because of other conditions imposed upon tribes they cannot levy the other taxes that cities and states rely upon to generate revenue to fund necessary services. But to the Trump administration and to HUD, Indian Country is at best invisible, at worst a nuisance.

But there is progress, nonetheless. Tribes are using the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program with greater success, and there are efforts to meet the housing needs of middle-income Indian households. But tribes must compete for a very limited pool of credits and capital, and they continue to face unfair conditions.

The disparities are also seen on the health side. What concerns do you have about COVID-19 hitting Native American communities?

I am gravely concerned, no pun intended, about the impact the coronavirus will have in Indian Country. Tribal people suffer from so-called “underlying conditions,” including diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and hypertension at much greater rates than the majority community. And culturally, Indians have a yearning—indeed, almost a compulsion—to be among family and friends in communal settings. Social distancing is impossible when 10 or 12 or more people occupy a trailer house, even if it is a double-wide. Working at home for those who are employed will be next to impossible. Far too few households have internet connections that might facilitate work from home, and online learning for school-age kids will be nearly impossible.

The one shining spot in the economy of some tribes, gaming, is utterly dependent upon masses of people, often older people, sitting together in close proximity, at slot machines or gaming tables. Not surprisingly, the single-largest nongovernmental employer on many reservations is the tribal casino, the industry for which they fought long and hard, in some cases for decades, to win approval. They are now shuttered and will be for the foreseeable future. But they will come back. Tribal people are perhaps the most perseverant people in the U.S. They will survive this pandemic, just as they survived the smallpox-infected blankets that delivered that devastating disease to tribal people in the 17th and 18th centuries.

What lessons do you hope to share with readers of “Slings & Arrows”?

I hope that the message people take from my book is that we all share in the perpetuation of myths and stereotypes. When we laugh at a story or simply fail to question either the motive of the teller or the disdain so often inherent in so many stories (think of the damage done by the ubiquitous “welfare queen” story), we miss an opportunity to undo a wrong. When is the last time you heard something you thought did not ring true but you did not then say “Really, you saw this, in person?” or “I have a hard time believing someone would do that.” Not so long ago there was a viral story making the rounds in banking circles that a young Indian man had borrowed money to buy a car and then had inexplicably burned the car on his reservation, leaving the bank without recourse. It is an incomprehensibly stupid premise. Nobody would make a downpayment in cash, as car buyers are required to do, then torch their new car. And there is no evidence this ever actually happened. Yet I saw too many people, mostly other bankers, nod their heads in agreement with the banker telling the ridiculously apocryphal story. They should have said, “Really, why would he do that? Where did that happen exactly?” But they did not. The message that was sent was that you cannot safely lend to Indian people. A counter message from the listeners should have been “That does not ring true. We cannot believe that story.” We must learn to be far more skeptical consumers of stories, be more mindful of the damage done by tales that denigrate and diminish people.
Especially stories that aren’t as stupid as this one. And worse, the stories we hear and retell inform public policy.

We hear stories about supposed insurmountable legal barriers or insoluble managerial insufficiencies, and they become ingrained in the minds of policymakers. No need to consider the disparate impact on Indians, they are too different from us. We can’t possibly write rules and regulations to account for such unknowable circumstances. Sometimes, all it takes is being a bit more thoughtful, a bit more cautious, maybe taking a little more time to question the assumptions underlying some longstanding policy. Of course, we are not all policymakers. But we can all become a part of the narrative. Being mindful that the things we have heard for so long may not be true, or at least that there is another side to the story, will begin to erode the damage done by the false narratives.

The subtitle is “How Toxic Narratives Perpetuate Poverty in Indian Country.” What do you mean by that, and can you give us an example?

Toxic narratives are the stories we have all heard that have a mysterious provenance and an unprovable hypothesis and are intended to belittle or degrade a minority or a class of people. When these stories go viral, as they too often do, just like the coronavirus, they infect people with a sense of superiority over others or create a sense that some people cannot be trusted, are not worthy of dignity. That gives us cover to discriminate and to behave badly, with impunity. In “Slings & Arrows,” I discuss, for example, the general view from some state LIHTC allocating agencies and some tax credit investors that Indian housing authorities were not capable sponsors of tax credit-financed housing. Indian housing authorities were believed to lack the discipline and the managerial capacity to handle such complex transactions. These conclusions came from the stories they had heard about an unwillingness to collect rent from Indian tenants. They stemmed from the stories they had all heard about the horrid conditions of the units as a result, they were certain, of simple negligence. In many cases, these conclusions came from what I call “windshield” surveys. Investor representatives or state agency personnel would drive onto a reservation, see the housing conditions, hear from HUD perhaps that the housing authority was deeply in arrears in collecting rent, and would go back to the home office and tell the story—they cannot be trusted to manage a tax credit project. Too much risk involved.

What was not reported, what was not included in the story was the fact that Indian housing authorities largely house the poorest families in the U.S. They do so in the harshest environmental conditions in the U.S., in the most remote regions of the country. As an aside, I point out in the book that The Washington Post sought to find exactly where in the U.S. is the “middle of nowhere.” They used a sophisticated data tool derived from the Malaria Project based at Oxford University and determined that the middle of nowhere in the U.S. was, basically, the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. More to the point, the stories heard by state agencies and investors fail to capture the reality of the gross underfunding of the Indian housing units that has persisted over decades. Yet the units managed and maintained by Indian housing authorities are typically fully occupied, often with lots of kids. They are intensely used. Furthermore, the stories fail to describe the historically well-grounded perspective that the housing units should be recompense for the millions of acres of land given up by the tribes in return for housing, health care, and education, none of which has ever been adequately provided, in defiance of clear treaty obligations. Difficulties collecting rent when rent should not be levied, in the not unreasonable eyes of most of the tenants, becomes a bit more understandable. But none of these realities are conveyed in the stories. Black and white is easier to see than the gray nuances of real life.

So, what will it take to write a new narrative?

When we watch a science fiction movie or a horror movie, we are asked to suspend disbelief. In order to change the narrative about black and Native American families, we must be willing to do the opposite. We must be willing to strengthen our disbelief, to question not just the validity of the story, but the reason it is being told. Is it really true that Indians get a check every month just for being Indian? Is it really true that 50% of every food stamp dollar is spent fraudulently? Could it be that the real reason people are willing to believe that Indians are paid to be Indians is that we don’t want to come to grips with the fact that we have failed to live up to our own standards of good will and good faith? Could it be that we willingly suspend disbelief and hold firm to the notion that the food stamp program is terribly mismanaged because we don’t want to admit to the more embarrassing reality of huge income disparities and food insecurities in our cities and counties? To write a new narrative, all it takes is listening a bit better, and being a bit more suspicious of the story and the storyteller. And it takes a willingness to stop repeating the stupid stuff we hear.

You write about the many inequities you’ve encountered during your career in developing affordable housing. Are those inequities changing or taking a different shape today?

As the old saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same. We tend to replace one inequity with another. I am not a complete pessimist, I do believe things have improved. I relate in “Slings & Arrows” the story of the Irish potato famine. At that time, in the late 1840s, the ruling British forbade anyone to provide food aid to an Irish man or woman, girl or boy, unless they were starving as a direct result of the potato blight. Their poverty was otherwise assumed to be a result of sloth, and the Brits were quite willing to let thousands die of starvation, in the midst of plenty. (As it turns out, there was a robust harvest of corn in Ireland at the time, and cattle were being exported at an unprecedented rate.) At least in the U.K. today, poverty is generally not considered a personal failing.

Likewise, tribes today have greater access to the tax credit program than they did in 1995, but it is still not enough, especially if you consider that tribes were systematically denied participation in the LIHTC program for its first 10 years or more. There is a lot of ground to make up, but there are more Indian set-asides and more attention is being paid to the particular needs of tribal people. But there remain some persistent problems. In one state, where the Indian population is about 10% of the state’s total, the LIHTC allocating agency believes it need not provide more than about 10% of the total credit allocation to tribal applicants. But what they fail to understand is that while Indians might be only 10% or so of the state’s population, they represent well over 40% of the state’s total households in poverty and have more than 50% of the state’s housing units without complete plumbing.

Too many state housing needs assessments make no mention of tribal conditions. Too many rules and regulations fail to take into account the specific burdens Indians bear from their remote locations, the Trust status of land, the scarcity of grocery stores and health clinics. Even progressive institutions fail to look at Indian Country. For example, Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy has done groundbreaking work relating the wealth disparities between black, white, and Hispanic households. Shockingly, they have shown, in just one example, that contrary to the popular belief that poverty and asset accumulation can be overcome by better education, they found instead that the median white high school dropout has similar levels of wealth to a black adult who graduated high school and has at least some college courses under their wing. The wealth disparities of Native Americans was not even considered in the analysis. It’s like they are invisible.

Yes, things are better, but the housing and health disparities in Indian Country remain a mostly hidden tragedy. Why is the teen suicide rate on some reservations 10 times greater than the national average? Why is this not even talked about?

If you could change one rule or program to make it easier to build affordable housing for Native Americans, what would it be and why?

Every state is different, and every qualified allocation plan is peculiar to that state. It is impossible, I think, to identify one rule, regulation, or program that should be or could be changed to make affordable housing more available in Indian Country. With one exception. Joining the ranks of California, Arizona, and North Dakota, South Dakota has just recently enacted an Indian set-aside, providing not less than 20% of the state’s total LIHTC allocation for a project on an Indian reservation. This should be the minimum for every state that has a significant Indian population.

But perhaps the single greatest change I would like to see is a general recognition of our collective failure to meet our treaty obligations to Indian tribes. Of course I would love to see the Black Hills returned to the Lakota nations, but absent that dramatic gesture, we need a broad understanding that tribes relinquished their single greatest asset, worth literally trillions of dollars in today’s market, the hundreds of millions of acres of land they gave up.

And we have never justly compensated them for that relinquishment. I would like to see a far more widespread understanding that most reservations, as a result of long ago federal actions, have unnecessarily isolated economies, distinct from their non-Indian neighboring communities in ways more than just geographic. At a public hearing years ago in Montana I was trying to advocate for special treatment for tribal housing projects, while at the same time advancing the idea that they should have equal access to a host of other state housing programs. One of the housing board members tried to catch me in a contradiction, saying, “So, you want tribes to be treated the same as everyone else, but you also want them to be treated differently?” The answer then and still remains yes.

For more information visit https://www.davidwbland.com/.