Federal home loan program still failing Native American veterans after 30 years

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BLADE DEER, Mont. – The GI bill has near-mythical significance in American history – generations of veterans were given an education and an easy home loan, the kind of thing that pulls families toward the middle class.

However, this advantage has never really been available to a group of Americans who serve in the military in very large numbers – Native Americans living on tribal lands. What was the subject of a small gathering this summer at the Lame Deer Mennonite Church, Mont.

Northern Cheyenne Tribal Government Veterans Coordinator Jeannie Beartusk prepared snacks and refreshments for the vets in attendance, but that didn’t change the fact that no bank will fund a GI Bill home loan on tribal land. .

“I tried to explain it as best I could,” she said, “You know, I can’t bend the rules.”

It’s because the banks can’t take back tribal lands in the event of loan default. This is not new – Congress tried to solve this problem 30 years ago. In 1992, the Native American Direct Loan (NADL) was created so that the Department of Veterans Affairs could work directly with tribes to fund a home loan.

“But the numbers are tiny,” says Bill Shear of the Federal Government Accountability Office.

Shear authored a recent report that found that in the continental United States, the VA has only used this direct loan 89 times over the past decade. Outreach by the VA reaches less than 1% of eligible Native veterinarians, Shear says.

“That would be an example of… how badly a government program can go wrong,” he says.

The GAO report found that the VA does not collect good data on NADL results and uses outdated manuals and reference desks that no longer exist.

Another problem that hindrance is that the VA cannot legally make a loan until it has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with each tribe. This takes action from the tribes, but also from the outreach of the VA.

Bryant Lacey, who oversees the Native American Direct Loan Program at the VA, says there are memorandums of understanding with only a fraction of the nearly 600 tribes in the United States.

“Right now, we’re only able to reach about 20% of those federally recognized tribes with the VA program. So we’re really focused on…engaging with the tribes that don’t have those protocols. okay with us,” he said.

Lacey has read the critical GAO report, and he says the VA is already working on solutions, including a new NADL team created in October 2021. Lacey also confirmed that the Northern Cheyenne tribe that Jeannie Beartusk works for is the one of the few that already has a memorandum of understanding to use the direct lending program.

This was news to veterans who gathered at Lame Deer Menonite Church.

“I’ve never heard of a direct loan,” said Henry Speelman, a former U.S. Marine and member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council.

Speelman has a special interest – he’s renting a house on the reservation and he says the owner is ready to sell.

The house overlooks horses and cows grazing in a pasture and is framed by low hills and those otherworldly sandstone formations of eastern Montana. Speelman could probably get a regular VA home loan — but only to buy a home off reserve. He wants to stay here.

“This is our stronghold“, he says. We were born and raised here, so it’s just…the feeling that you feel safe here.”

Deer visit the back yard most nights and occasionally a black bear. A few grandchildren live with him, and one of them rides the quarter horses that graze in front.

“And as chaotic as it is, it’s still home,” he says. “It’s right where I want to be.”

But he needs a loan.

Despite several government programs designed to make this happen, he can’t seem to get one.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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