Can Green Designs Solve A Housing Crisis?
The walls of Elmer Bear Eagle's house are covered in mold. The black intrusion began in the basement. It crept up the sides. Now it blocks sunlight through the windows.
The problem is fairly common throughout the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Overcrowded conditions-homes built for four people have held more than 20-contribute to high levels of indoor humidity, creating a mold haven.
The homes are also fraught with poor insulation, which Bear Eagle says leaves his mobile home uncomfortably exposed to the region's harsh summers and winters. "Here the climate is really extreme," he said. "These houses are fire traps."
Still, Bear Eagle is fortunate just to have a home. The tribal housing authority says 4,500 people-most of them Lakota Sioux-are waiting for subsidized housing on a reservation of approximately 40,000 people. Tribal leaders attribute the housing situation to high rates of alcoholism, domestic violence, and youth suicide, though widespread unemployment is a factor as well.
To provide housing, improve living conditions, and stimulate economic growth, many within the reservation are turning to green building. More home designers are encouraging plans that would ideally reduce heating and maintenance costs. But with a growing housing demand that threatens the survival of many Lakota people, some say alternative construction materials are still unproven.
”A Perfect Fit'
The wave of green building innovation is not unique to Pine Ridge. As individual green homes are built in towns across Indian country, mostly by volunteers, interest within the wider Native American community is growing. "Because of our community and our high needs - economic development and sustainability - [green housing] is a perfect fit for us," said Karen Driver, chairperson of the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.
Several government-led efforts have been launched this year to educate tribal leaders about green building design. Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office of Native Americans Programs (ONAP) organized a "Greener Homes National Summit," and the department has hosted smaller workshops around the country. "There's been strong participation by tribes in the regional training," said Randy Akers, an administrator for ONAP's Northern Plains office. "It's indicative of the interest tribes have in green buildings to improve their housing conditions."
On some of the poorer reservations, many say the government is not doing enough to provide for housing. Despite HUD's efforts to encourage green construction, some activists are convinced the federal government opposes alternative construction material because it would divert money from preferred federal contractors. "The people operating the housing system, HUD, they are opposing this because they have no profit in this," said Richard Boyden, founder of the Sioux advocacy organization Operation Morning Star.
The federal government says it offers energy-efficiency grants for Native American housing projects, but few tribal members are aware of the program. Green building design is also restricted across Indian country by the fact that many tribes are reluctant to pay extra for efficiency. "A green building strategy costs a little more upfront, yet we don't see our resources increase on a federal level," Driver said.