Rob Pyatt: A New Approach To American Indian Housing

10919_pyatt Rob Pyatt: A New Approach To American Indian Housing PERSON OF THE WEEK: For too many years, the housing situation on American Indian reservations and tribal lands has been dismal. However, a new program called the Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative (NASHI) is seeking to create sustainable and affordable housing while maintaining a culturally appropriate sense of balance in the new residential structures.

NASHI is an interdisciplinary collaboration of faculty, students and volunteers at the University of Colorado at Boulder's College of Architecture and Planning and the construction technology program at Oglala Lakota College at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. MortgageOrb spoke with NASHI Director Rob Pyatt about this project and the overall state of American Indian housing.

Q: What was the genesis of NASHI?

Pyatt: I founded NASHI in 2010 to assist tribal communities with sustainable development after I witnessed the severe housing needs while consulting on several sustainable housing projects on both the Crow and Navajo Nation territories. A National American Indian Housing Council study determined that 33% of reservation households are overcrowded, which may contribute to some of the reported problems.

Q: From your perspective, what are the housing challenges of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation?

Pyatt: The Pine Ridge reservation has been nationally acknowledged as one of the poorest counties in the U.S. The unemployment rate is above 80%, and its average income has been reported as between $2,600 and $3,500. Social needs such as education, healthcare and basic resources like electricity, water and heat have all been referred to as ‘third world conditions.’ These circumstances have all led to lower life expectancies, extraordinarily high suicide rates and disproportionate rates of alcohol and drug addictions.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency housing study on Pine Ridge revealed the following findings:

  • 59% of the reservation homes are substandard;
  • 26% of the housing units on the reservation are mobile homes, often purchased or obtained through donations as used, low-value units with negative-value equity;
  • At least 4,000 new homes are needed to combat the homeless situation;
  • 33% of the reservation homes lack basic water and sewage systems, as well as electricity; and
  • Many reservation homes lack adequate insulation, and even more homes lack central heating.

Q: Part of the challenge for NASHI is educating the students in creating tribal housing that is sustainable, affordable, regionally appropriate and reflective of Native American culture. How are you able to combine these seemingly disparate aspects into a single concept?

Pyatt: It begins with education. The University of Colorado at Boulder and Oglala Lakota College faculty and students will host a series of community design workshops focused on sustainable and affordable housing options during the spring semester on the Oglala Lakota College campus at Pine Ridge. Participants will include students, Oglala Lakota community members, Oglala Lakota community development groups and other professionals.

The design workshops have been structured to provide the students firsthand experience in a community-based participatory design process to identify, document and integrate the visions, values and ideas of the Oglala Lakota community.

Q: What lessons can be brought from the NASHI endeavor into the wider world of creating sustainable affordable housing for modern society?

Pyatt: It is important to create a cultural and contextual foundation to inform and shape the design work produced in the NASHI academic service-learning program studio, as well as develop a long-term community relationship with the Oglala Lakota Nation by working in partnership with the Oglala Lakota College and Oglala Lakota community development groups to facilitate this participatory community-design process.

This specific combination of collaboration, research, interdisciplinary coursework and firsthand experience ensures a deeper contextual basis for the housing designs, and provides the opportunity to work on relevant contemporary and innovative solutions to problems affecting the Oglala Lakota community.

I truly believe that the Lakota People, their culture and traditional values, can teach us a lot about community, sustainability, land stewardship and how to integrate this knowledge into the built environment.


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