Phase 1: Visioning

Affordable housing development looks different in every community. This is especially true in Native communities and in remote rural communities. Navigating trust land or checkerboard status can create additional barriers for low-income residents living on tribal lands and organizations wanting to develop housing; they are oftentimes left wondering where to start. Additionally, not all Native communities live on reservation trust lands, such as Native Alaskan Villages, Native Hawaiian homesteads, or landless or state-recognized tribes.

While varied tribal land contexts impact the approach to development, they should not act as a barrier to developing affordable housing on tribal lands. There is an increasing number of developers with experience working on projects in Indian Country and a growing body of literature to support such projects, and dedicated funding sources that can help make these projects come to realization.

In this phase, we will outline the key steps and processes in the Visioning Phase of a development action in Native communities, starting with identifying and understanding the need for affordable housing.

Understanding community needs and holistic planning is the cornerstone of an effective visioning process and holds particular weight in Native communities where the importance of tribal self-determination and the limited community  and leadership engagement and input around housing programs can make housing needs difficult to untangle. The aspects of Visioning that are important to understand that we will cover in this section include:

  • Housing Needs in Native Communities

  • Community Education and Engagement

  • What are the Steps to Meaningful Community Engagement?

  • Working with Tribal Leadership

  • Housing Needs Assessment

  • Gathering Information About Your Community

  • Survey Design Considerations

  • Addressing More than Housing

  • Bringing Indigenous Design into Multifamily Housing

  • Community-engaged Design Process

  • Assessing Capacity

  • How to Assess Internal Capacity

  • What Capacities Will You Need for Development?

  • Core Capacities for Housing Development


Housing Needs in Native Communities

The need for affordable housing is a nationwide issue that is particularly acute in Native communities that have long been deprived of viable options for housing development. In 2017, The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development published a report outlining the results of an assessment of housing needs in Native communities.[2]

Data from this report shows that physical housing problems for Native communities are far greater than for households in other parts of the United States.

The report highlights that low-income Native households experience physical problems with their homes at a rate of nearly 40 percent more than for the average American household. This emphasizes that low-income Native households are living in far worse conditions than evidenced by the average number of incidences.

Discrepancies in housing quality extend to affordability as well, with 38 percent of Native households considered to be cost burdened compared to 36 percent nationally (paying more than 30% of their income towards rent). The report estimates 68,000 additional housing units are needed to meet demand, but other sources indicate it is likely three times that number when you take overcrowding into account. [3]

On reservations, 32.7 percent of households rent their homes, with 22.9 percent of these households renting in multifamily buildings. This compares with 36.4 percent and 42.6 percent, respectively, for the country as a whole. Tribe and nontribal members alike can live on reservations and when the number of tribal members living on a reservation goes up, the number of multifamily units decreases. For example, on tribal lands where at least half of the population are tribal members, only 9.6 percent of rental units are multifamily, and when 90 percent of the population are tribal members, it drops even further to 6.5 percent. (See Exhibit 1).

Exhibit 1: Rental Unit Mix on Native American Reservations
  National Reservation Tribal Member Percentage on Reservation Land
50% + 70% +  80%+ 90% +
Rental Units (% of all households) 36.4% 32.7% 34.6% 33.1% 31.3% 27.8%
Multifamily Rental Units (% of all households) 15.5% 7.5% 3.3% 2.6% 2.2% 1.8%
Multifamily Rental Units (% of all rental) 42.6% 22.9% 9.6% 7.8% 6.9% 6.5%
Source: Freddie Mac tabulations of the 2016 5-Year American Community Survey

Another reason there may be fewer rental units has to do with regulatory burden and barriers to accessing housing vouchers and other forms of assistance for affordable rental housing. Tribally Designated Housing Entities (TDHEs) can use up to 10% of their Indian Housing Block Grant (IHBG) funds for mid- to above-income households, but there is a process and much documentation is required (See: Calculating Affordability). Often, tribes use the money for their low-income renters, and it is difficult to determine who to assist with the 10% allocation, when the numbers show that there is far greater need than funds available.

Tribal Data: Approval process for submitting your own census data to meet federal requirements.

Native communities are incredibly diverse and so are their housing needs. Above we shared a few principles that apply as a whole, but your tribe may not have a nonprofit, may have a more stable private housing market, may be located in an urban area, may be on a resource-scarce island or within the Arctic circle, or may have different expectations for traditional livelihood and home-making for tribal members. Consider these circumstances upfront and do not shy away from what makes you unique, nor what challenges you will have to face that others may not.

Making the Case for New Development

Despite the needs outlined above, it may not be easy to get all the stakeholders, potential residents, and tribal leaders on board with a new multifamily development. Most developers in urban areas are prepared to confront NIMBY or “not in my backyard” attitudes that resist affordable rental properties, but stakeholder interviews show that this is not necessarily the case in Native communities. In 2018, Fannie Mae conducted a series of interviews with a small sample of low-income Native Americans on homeownership. The Native Americans surveyed emphasized the family home and its connection to the land as central to tribal life. Homeownership is not viewed as a means of building wealth alone, as in many other communities, but rather a way of connecting with land and the tribe.[6] Establishing new rental housing - rather than long-term homeownership - in Native communities will present different challenges and opportunities from what developers can expect elsewhere in the nation.

Tribes have been disadvantaged by state and federal agencies for decades, and when it feels as though there are limited resources, new development and a new financing structure may be labeled a risk compared to maintaining existing housing stock and services. Tribal leaders may also remember times in the past when outside stakeholders weren’t properly trained or engaged in Native development, nor did they have a clear understanding of the culture or history of the tribe, and projects fell apart.

Before anything can happen, it is important to work to ensure that tribal leadership, the community, and key stakeholders are all comfortable with the goals of development and share the same priorities. Multi-family development has many benefits: as the population in Native communities continues to grow and Native people move back to reservations in large numbers, the importance of cultivating a culture around multifamily housing is crucial. Not only does multifamily housing development create more units that can serve a larger portion of the low-income population, it also more easily facilitates infrastructure such as broadband, water and sewage, etc.

There are a few key benefits of multifamily housing to help make your case to your community:

City with solid fill

Allows for more housing to be built on a given parcel of land. For example, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council, on the same plot of land it would take to build 3 single family homes, you could build a 4 story multifamily building with 40 units (or more).[7] It also often allows greater access to jobs, transit, and other amenities.

Fork In Road with solid fill Serves a wider range of needs. Multifamily housing can accommodate a wide range of unit types, locations, and price points, creating flexibility and allowing you to serve those community members that don’t meet the typical thresholds for affordable housing but are still considered cost burdened.
Money with solid fill Cost-efficient and cost-effective. Development costs for multifamily housing are significantly lower than single-family housing. For LITCH projects specifically, more costs need to be raised upfront to cover the lower monthly income (rental payments) that will result from single family development.
Bar graph with upward trend with solid fill

Stimulates and sustains local economies. At a national level, housing constraints and regulations are estimated to have lowered aggregate economic growth by 36 percent between 1964 and 2009.[8]

Slippery Road with solid fill Creates efficiencies in the use of public infrastructure and services. Denser development saves 38 percent on the delivery of upfront infrastructure, and 10 percent on the cost of delivering public services.

The good news is that there is financing out there to fund multifamily housing projects on tribal lands, including going beyond the Indian Housing Block Grant. 

Now that you have a better understanding of what home means to the community, we can begin to discuss strategies for community education and engagement around multifamily housing.

Community Education and Engagement

Listening to the perspectives of a community leads to more responsible stewardship of resources that endure into future generations. This is a natural thought process across many Native cultures, and usually key personnel involved in the housing development will also be from, live, or work in the tribal community. However, it remains important that all involved engage the community in the early stages of the project. Housing development not only helps the families it serves, it also has the potential to positively impact the landscape of the community and will influence future infrastructure decisions. Additionally, ensuring that potential residents of the building are a part of the process ensures that the building truly meets the needs of those who will live within it.

Keep the community informed during every step of the way, starting with education about the benefits of multifamily housing. Development is an iterative process, so even as new money is being brought in or design concepts are being finalized, letting community members know about any changes, delays, or successes helps foster support for the project. To be effective, consider appointing one staff member or hiring a third party to lead the community engagement process from start to finish.

Finally, Barbara Roloff, former housing director, has a reminder about the visioning process: 

"Long-term planning is a mind shift. All of the puzzle pieces here is a new concept that hasn't necessarily been happening in many of these programs. It takes perseverance and fervor to keep this momentum going. It really needs to be threaded throughout this curriculum. It's not a sprint but a marathon."

What Are the Steps to Meaningful Community Engagement?

The words "Community Engagement" are used frequently, but the following steps can help bring clarity to what a community engagement process can look like.[9]


  1. Define scope of the planning process
    Being clear about the scope of the housing strategy will make it easier to engage the community in a transparent and accountable way.

  2. What are the goals of the process? Is the tribe or TDHE starting from a relatively blank slate to understand the full set of housing needs or is it focused on a specific project?

  3. What decisions can the community impact, and what is already decided based on the funding the project is receiving, for example?

  4. What is the timeline and decision-making structure that will dictate the process? How often will you be meeting with the community, and in what capacity?

  5. How often should different meetings be coordinated with different groups i.e., internal staff meetings, resident meetings, general council meetings, board meetings)?

  6. Develop an understanding of the community landscape
    Map out who the tribe needs to reach and hear from. Intentional efforts should be made to identify the families excluded from or underrepresented in decision-making processes in the past. How will youth be engaged and the voices of elders be honored? How will the voices of potential residents inform the development?

  7. Which groups or service providers are trusted by community members and can help to engage the most affected community members?

  8. Who are the other stakeholders (housing and non-housing practitioners, industry representatives, tribal leadership, tribal departments, including economic development and planner, informal community leaders, advocates, other governmental agencies such as the Indian Health Service or the Bureau of Indian Affairs) that bring important perspectives, concerns, and expertise to the housing planning process? Amongst smaller tribes, consider engaging regional perspectives.

  9. Take time to learn about past planning and community engagement activities in the community. Has a planning or engagement process taken place that never came to fruition? Are there plans sitting on a shelf? Were promises made to the community that weren’t followed-through on? It is important to understand past planning efforts with the community, especially if there is a history of surveying the community without the development coming to fruition. How can this community engagement effort navigate any potential planning fatigue or skepticism in the community?

  10. Identify core questions and trade-offs
    The community engagement process is a chance to get the community’s help answering the tough questions with which tribal officials and the TDHE must grapple in order to craft a housing strategy that is responsive to the needs of the community. While it might seem daunting to put controversial questions before the community, these questions will emerge regardless, and it is best to be frank about them from the start in order to ensure an inclusive process and secure community buy-in during implementation.

  11. What are the most important questions and trade-offs the tribe must consider?

  12. Are there segments of the community that will be particularly interested in those questions?

  13. Assess community capacity
    To ensure targeted and robust feedback from community members, you may also need to provide additional information related to the overall engagement process and the components of a housing strategy.

  14. What kind of information will community members need to comfortably and meaningfully engage in planning housing strategy (glossary of terms, examples)?

  15. How will the materials and information be delivered in a way that ensures accessibility for a diverse range of community groups?

  16. Who  is the point of contact moving forward, if individuals have questions about the process?

  17. Design engagement strategies and identify resource needs
    There are a range of engagement strategies to consider depending on the scope of the planning process, the community landscape, the capacities of tribal leadership, your organization, the community, the questions that need to be answered, and the resources available.

  18. Have some strategies worked better than others in the community in the past?

  19. Is there political support and community interest in a sustained, structured advisory committee or taskforce to guide the process and develop policy recommendations? Is there support for a community-based advisory group that is invited into certain decisions, and are expected to be ambassadors about this development to the community?

  20. What other community perspectives should be brought in and what are the best community-based meetings and outreach strategies for reaching them?

  21. Could web-based engagement tools help to engage people who cannot attend in-person meetings?

  22. Where and when should meetings occur to ensure a diverse range of community members can attend? How will you ensure language justice in these meetings?

  23. What resources are needed to implement the most effective engagement strategies?

  24. Will you need to provide food and/or incentives to keep people engaged?

  25. Decide how input will be used
    To build community support, it is important to be clear with the participants about how the tribe plans to use feedback from a task force, public meetings, online surveys, and any other engagement, and to follow through on those commitments.

  26. How will community input be used?

  27. Who will be involved in deciding what will be incorporated into the final strategy and what was their involvement with the overall engagement process?

  28. How will tribal officials share and discuss with the public which community recommendations were used and which were not and why not?

  29. Who will facilitate this planning process and keep it moving forward?

Finally, community engagement doesn’t end after a defined planning process. Community members can help see the plan through to successful implementation and beyond. Remember that communication should be a two-way street. Public information and opportunities for feedback should be at each step, and in return, the community and families will show up to support the project implementation.

Working with Tribal Leadership

Tribal leadership will play an important role in encouraging affordable rental housing development in Native communities. It is always essential that tribal leadership is informed about the need for affordable housing and is engaged or has endorsed another entity to lead the project. Sometimes this process may take time, and past examples of successful first-time tribal developers have even begun by gathering with other developers or conducting site visits to successful tribal projects.

We recognize that there are multiple levels of tribal leadership, in addition to elected tribal council members. Examples include:

  • Traditional leaders

  • Elders

  • TERO

  • Workforce departments

  • TDHE leaders

  • Educational leaders

  • Youth leaders

  • Grassroots leaders

  • Board members

  • Individuals with lived experience

For the purposes of this guide, we are going to focus on the role of elected tribal leaders and their governance on the issues of affordable housing. [10]



Housing Needs Assessment

To better understand the housing needs in your community plans to serve, consider conducting a Housing Needs Assessment or examining an assessment of housing needs that may have been conducted by a neighboring jurisdiction or at the state level. Housing needs assessments document the unmet housing needs in a market. This is typically accomplished by comparing the overall housing needs to the current supply of housing to determine what portion of the needs are unmet. In addition, local stakeholder and resident input can be used to identify needs not captured in the data. In the absence of a dedicated housing needs assessment, there may be other local plans and studies that document unmet housing needs in the tribe, community, or region. Because housing needs are typically large and diverse in tribal communities, housing needs assessments can be undertaken while simultaneously working on a development project. 

What is the difference between a market study & housing needs assessment?

Housing Needs Assessments do not serve the same function as market studies, though the two are often confused. A market study is an in-depth analysis of the market feasibility and demand for a specific type of development (and potentially in a specific location within the community). A market study is used to build an understanding of how your project site will fit into the community and what needs will be met. 

A housing needs assessment is a more global and comprehensive assessment of the housing needs and conditions in the community but is not focused on assessing the feasibility of a specific development or type of housing. A Housing Needs Assessment could cover a whole state, county, or reservation for example.

Gathering Information About Your Community

Native developers have a lot of first-hand knowledge about their communities’ needs, but it is important to gather big-picture information. Tribal members or others who work closely with or serve tribal communities may assume they already understand community needs and move forward with development based on these assumptions. A needs assessment can help steer the overall direction of the project and save valuable time and resources over the lifetime of the project. A needs assessment, for example, may highlight the number of units that are needed for development and the bedroom size of those units. It can also help narrow down location preferences, building typology and amenities needed in the community.

There are different ways you can gather information about community needs, including:

  • Surveys

  • Focus groups

  • Interviews

  • Focused outreach to specific groups (such as elders and youth)

  • Review of secondary data

Using one, or a combination, of these methods can ensure that tribal members are effectively engaged in housing development that meets their needs. This guide will focus on surveys as the primary method for collecting data for a needs assessment. Before heading out into the community and administering a survey, review the following with your team:

  • Clarify what you want to know.

  • Don’t ask too many questions.

  • Determine who you want to hear from.

  • Determine how you will collect information.

  • Clarify how many respondents you’d like to hear from.

  • Determine who you might partner with to conduct your assessment. Potential examples might be the school, IHS, the Tribal College, or even tribal leadership

  • Include a budget for incentives for survey participants

  • Ensure that there is intentional outreach and engagement with people who may be end users of the housing

Once the survey is complete, analyzing and presenting the data will be key to understanding trends and needs in the community. Training local community members to collect the survey data is a best practice; it can create a local (even if temporary) job and can potentially  increase participation from community members and the accuracy of the data collected.

Results should be shared and discussed with tribal leaders, community members and staff.[11][12] For a complete case study that outlines the needs assessment process of a tribal community, check out the Tribal Leaders Handbook on Homeownership Housing Needs Study Case Study of the Cheyenne River Housing Authority.


Survey Design Considerations

It is important to consider local context and facilitate community involvement in the survey implementation process to ensure sufficient and accurate results. Big Water Consulting is one firm that conducts survey design work and they provides this list of 5 Tips for Conducting Successful Tribal Needs Assessment Projects:

  1. Without tribal support this is just another survey. Community-wide needs assessment projects often address the data needs of a wide range of programs and depend upon efficient and timely assistance from various tribal departments, including human resources, communications, IT, finance and enrollment, etc. Commitment from tribal stakeholders, including leadership and an array of tribal programs, is critical to mobilizing vital tribal resources. Tribal support is also essential to get community buy-in and distinguish this tribal survey from the steady stream of others targeting tribal households.

  2. Be thorough, but don’t be greedy. Strike a balance between the desire to accommodate data requests from various tribal stakeholders and the practical necessity of limiting the amount of time it takes each community member to complete the questionnaire. To arrive at a thorough yet succinct survey, be sure to set common objectives and priorities among stakeholders during the survey design phase.

  3. An informed community is a cooperative community. Explain the purpose of the project through community events and all available communication channels to let the community know this effort is “by the tribe, for the tribe.” Don’t overlook the power of word-of-mouth: all field staff are ambassadors of the project and should be able to confidently explain the purpose of the project. An informative door hanger and a reasonable incentive that is easily used locally or reflects cultural values can help encourage community participation and increase response rates. At project closure, don’t forget to share the results and decisions with the community to demonstrate that their voice was heard, and their participation is valued.

  4. A dedicated local team is the key to success. All data flows through the field staff: survey respondents provide honest and complete responses to field staff whom they trust and with whom they feel comfortable. Locally hired field staff should grasp the technical skills required for efficient data collection, as well as the art of effectively engaging with community members. As the local team lead, the survey manager must master project and personnel management, lead field staff through project hurdles, and be accountable for the team’s productivity.

  5. Monitor incoming data quality toa void post-collecting surprises. Review of incoming data should start early in the data collection phase. Identifying data quality issues, such as missing data or potential outliers, allows the survey manager to train or counsel field staff before additional errors pile up. Addressing data quality issues alongside t A dedicated local team is the key to success. All data flows through the field staff: survey respondents provide honest and complete responses to field staff whom they trust and with whom they feel comfortable. Locally hired field staff should grasp the technical skills required for efficient data collection, as well as the art of effectively engaging with community members. As the local team lead, the survey manager must master project and personnel management, lead field staff through project hurdles, and be accountable for the team’s productivity.

Tips originally provided for Enhancing and Implementing: Homeownership Programs in Native Communities, a companion curriculum to The Tribal Leaders Handbook on Homeownership.

Addressing More than Housing

When designing a survey, use local knowledge and context to address specific cross-sector needs in the community and identify how your project can address these needs. Including cross-sector issues in the housing needs assessment. We explore a few of these specific issues discussed below.

Treating Trauma

Including questions about the need for supportive housing for treating trauma and symptoms of trauma - including substance use disorder, mental health challenges, and post-traumatic stress disorder - is the first step in determining if there is a need for this type of housing in your community. Native communities experience substance abuse, trauma, and violence at higher rates than those of the general U.S. population, American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.5 times as likely to experience violent crimes and at least 2 times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault crimes compared to all other races. More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women, or 84.3 percent, have experienced violence in their lifetime making housing for those in recovery from trauma a common need.[1]  

[13] Young, R.S., & Joe, J.R. (2009). Some thoughts about the epidemiology of alcohol and drug use among American Indian/Alaska Native populations. Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse, 8(3), 223-41.

[14] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health Detailed Tables.


There are affordable housing models that have historically been used to create housing for community members with untreated trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse disorders. The three primary models include:

  1. Permanent Supportive Housing [15]


  2. Housing First[16]


  3. Recovery Housing[17]


For example, the Makah Tribe in northwest Washington found that substance abuse disorder (a symptom of untreated trauma) was the primary reason that people were experiencing homelessness on the reservation and decided to develop supportive housing for this vulnerable population earning no more than 30 percent of the area median income. The project was made possible through the collaboration of experienced partners and creative financing that includes loans from the Washington State Housing Trust Fund, LIHTC, a grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Seattle, and tribal investment. Read the full case study at the end of this phase.


Just under half (46 percent) of tribal housing officials noted that people in their community use homeless shelters, according to a HUD survey in 2017. [1]  Homelessness in Indian Country often looks different than the traditional definition of homeless, which indicates sleeping on the street, in emergency shelter, or any place not intended for human habitation. Homelessness in Indian Country primarily takes the form of overcrowding, or “doubling up,” in already crowded homes, rather than sleeping unsheltered. Doubling up, or taking in family or friends who would otherwise be living unsheltered, was reported by 99.8 percent of tribal housing officials surveyed for the Housing Needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives in Tribal Areas. This practice often makes homelessness less conspicuous in Indian Country.

Including questions in your housing needs assessment to determine if services are needed for individuals experiencing homelessness both in the traditional sense or through doubling up or overcrowding can help determine what kind of project you want to develop.

[1] Pindus, Nancy and Kingsley, Thomas and Biess, Jennifer and Levy, Diane and Simington, Jasmine and Hayes, Christopher, Housing Needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives in Tribal Areas: A Report from the Assessment of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Housing Needs: Executive Summary (January 2017). U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research, January 2017, Available at SSRN: or

Climate Resilience

Natural disasters continue to occur with greater frequency and increased severity across the globe, impacting local conditions in Native communities. These natural disasters such as wildfires, flooding, mudslides, tornados, and hail, often have disproportionate impacts on low-income and other vulnerable populations. This disparity in impact is, in part, due to the lack of financial buffer to secure temporary housing alternatives, maintain jobs, and bounce-back financially from a natural disaster. Think about the potential for natural disasters in your community: have community members experienced flooding? Are there frequent wildfires that impact residents? What improvements need to be made to the housing stock to ensure climate resilience?

It is important for developers to consider climate resilience as a lens in their work – both to mitigate the immediate risks today and to account for the likelihood of increased risks over time as the climate continues to change.[19]

[19] chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/viewer.html?



Bringing Indigenous Design into Multifamily Housing

Tribal nations know that building housing is more than just putting a roof over someone’s head: increasing the housing stock makes connectivity to family, tribe, the land, and heritage easier when community members have safe, decent, and affordable homes to live in. In recent years, indigenous design has made its way into homes and communities in ways that honor the relationship they have to quality of life, indigenous lifeways, and a community’s sense of place.

A few examples of this may include evoking traditional tribal shelters, like tipis, longhouses, or pueblos. Housing developers can consider oral traditions, ceremonial practices, symbology, and history as they design new homes for the next generation. Indigenous design can aid other tribal priorities, like retaining youth, honoring the elderly, and integrating services like drug rehabilitation and counseling. Community facilities, outdoor spaces, and accessibility are all made possible through design.

Whatever funding or architecture group you might eventually work with, integrating tribal community members in the design process is key. Stakeholders who have a sense of the priorities of a community and local artisans can often inspire creative design approaches. Together, designers and community members can facilitate learning around the existing conditions, history, and trends of the community that might influence the built environment. Integrated early enough in the process, they may point you to neighborhoods or specific sites that could affect—or be affected by—the development process. Examples of engagement facilitated by designers might include site-specific charrettes or online design tools, as well as the interviews or engagement sessions already covered.

When discussing building design with the community, consider collecting feedback on some of the following elements:

  • storytelling, either oral traditions or history

  • iconography

  • color scheme, patterns, styles, and designs from local artisans

  • built environment solutions to community challenges

  • access to ceremony and community

  • access to healthy living, family, and brighter futures.

Design is a process that your tribal community members should be highly involved in to ensure your design team understands your goals and is culturally-informed every step of the way. This includes not only how you want a building to look aesthetically, but also: 

  • How would you like the building to be configured on the site and connect to the land and surrounding environment? 

  • What uses do you expect for interior spaces, how do you want those to relate to one another? Do you expect them to change over time? For example, if you are planning to have on-site services in addition to affordable housing, what types of spaces will these services require? 

  • Think about flexibility of spaces as well. What you need on the opening day of a building, will be distinct from that which you need 10 years down the line. How does the space offer opportunities for a diversity of activities?

  • Do you have experiences with other similar developments you have visited or lived in – what did you like or dislike about them that could inform your plan? 

  • Do you have an expected budget and timeline for construction? 

  • How much do you want your architect to prioritize less expensive materials or other design components to save on costs? 

  • Do you have other concerns or expectations the design should address? 

  • Was this designed using trauma informed care principles?

It will be helpful to understand the space and privacy requirements whenever you are developing a project that includes supportive services like care management, mental health counseling, family reunification  or any other type of community space. For example, some services may require equipment storage, larger rooms for group activities, spaces with particular design features for children, or areas for private counseling. Understanding these needs can help you design spaces to accommodate them and incorporate those tribal needs in the vision of the project. 

What is trauma-Informed Design?

Trauma-informed design is a new understanding that is based on trauma-informed care which is already a best-practice in services. This new concept underscores that housing should not just put a roof over people’s heads, but should create dignity, healing, and joy. This impacts the design process and prioritizes the voices of future staff and potential residents to hear what they need in housing to feel safe, and for their voice to help lead the design – ensuring the housing meets the needs and honors the identities of the residents. An overview of TID principles and a TID design process can be found at

Community-Engaged Design Process

Integrating community input into the design process is key to a holistic approach to pre-development and visioning. It prioritizes information gathering and understanding, and emphasizes the resident experience to set objectives and create resident buy-in. It can also serve as a project coordination tool that brings your development team together and builds consensus among all related stakeholders. Ensure that tribal leaders, relevant local government representatives, and other approving bodies are involved to provide input as well. Also consider scheduling regular design reviews or check-ins with community stakeholders. This will help architectural and engineering partners respond to community feedback. The project team will guide the structure and content of these meetings, but a few key considerations include:

Teams should consider the integrative design process early. In order to avoid over-surveying, it is helpful to include design specific questions in your Community Needs Assessment. Work with your design partner to develop questions that make sense for your community and work with other tribal departments to avoid over-surveying or engagement fatigue.

Building team goals and priorities with culturally appropriate and sustainable design considerations early in the process will ensure that these factors are seen in project outcomes later in the process.

For an in-depth look into the integrative design process and resources to help your team identify project priorities, check out the Enterprise Green Communities Integrative Design Toolkit.

Assessing Capacity

Native American tribes, TDHEs, and partners working with them need to explore multifamily housing development in relation to their internal or collective capacity. While it is important that the lead entity, typically the TDHE, understands the different models and their components, they do not have to be an expert, or the only organization involved in each step of the process. In fact, more often than not, one organization takes the lead and partners with others to carry out certain parts of the framework.

It is relatively common for developers to work and learn together on affordable housing projects, and it is a great way to build capacity and a deeper understanding of the process. Regardless of your approach to filling capacity gaps, working with developers can ultimately give you and your team the time and space required for individual and organizational learning to take place.

Starting to Assess Internal Capacity

The goal of assessing internal capacity is to determine where developing multifamily housing fits into larger organizational goals and what capacity already exists or is needed to be successful. Through identifying skills and gaps of employees, you can begin to assign roles and responsibilities and outline a plan for bringing in partners for additional support. In fact, many grant applications require organizational capacity assessments as a part of the submission package.

When assessing internal capacity, start by identifying what capacity you already have in-house:

  • What does our organization do well?

  • What does our staff enjoy doing?

  • What do we have the capacity to do effectively?

  • What should we build our capacity to do?

  • What do we have the resources to do?

From there, you can use the multifamily housing development checklist below to identify gaps in capacity that a partner could fill. Start by asking yourself these questions:

Needs Assessment and Outreach

Concept Development


Have you conducted a needs assessment recently?

Who can conduct a survey/ needs assessment?

Who are your potential residents? (TDHE residents, veterans, young families, tribal employees)

How will you reach out to and recruit potential residents?

How will you determine what families can afford?

Who will work with potential residents to complete applications?

Where will you build?

Where do tribal members want to live?

What type of multifamily housing do you want to build? (Apartments, condos, etc.)

☐Who will your development partner be?

Determine level of board and/or council support. Are there any site constraints or opportunities you need to consider?

What infrastructure will be necessary? (septics, lagoon, water line, wells, roads)

What are your infrastructure costs?

Considering the net buildable area, how many units can I build on this property? Can I still make a profit?

Establish project goals. Who will be involved in this process?

Who will conduct the environmental assessment?

Who will the project manager and staff be?

Do you already have established site control?

What additional funding do you need? How will you pursue it?

What will your development budget include? (construction, roads, infrastructure)

Are you familiar with sources of development financing?

How is your repayment ability for development financing?

What needs to be in place to access development financing?

Development Phase

Design and Construction

Capacity and Partners

How will you secure financing commitments?

Who will run the appraisal process?

Finalize site control.

What design features do potential residents want?

Are you working with an architect?

Do you have construction plans, floor plans?

Who will build your building? (force account, contractors, other crew)

How will you select a contractor and other involved parties involved?

Do you already have maintenance and operations manuals?

Who will manage the leasing process?

Do you have the capacity to carry out these different pieces?

Where are your gaps?

How can you build staff capacity?

Who can you partner with on some of these pieces?

What Capacities Will You Need for Development? 

The specific capacities needed for multifamily development are going to vary, depending on size of development, location, and prior experience, but there are some general capacities that apply regardless. The chart below outlines general capacities and skills for your team.

icon: hands in a circle
Program Staff
  • Project management
  • Contractor management
  • Grant management
  • Compliance
icon: compass rose
  • Human resources
  • Information Technology (IT)
  • Accounting and finance
Icon: Talking in a circle
Board Support
  • Real estate expertise
  • Accounting and finance
  • Community experience
  • Capacity assessment and alignment

In addition to these key skills for different levels of staff, there are some core competencies that are helpful for at least some staff to have experience with or knowledge about:

Does your organization have experience with key parts of the development process? This experience is a critical part of being able to realize your development process. Some knowledge areas that are necessary during the development process include:

  • Existing regulations (leasehold, land use/building, approval processes)

  • Decision-making norms and structures

  • Community and stakeholder relationships, including the ability to build them

  • Project management

  • Site selection factors, especially those affecting development on tribal lands

  • Real-estate finance, including familiarity with private-sector financing and public-sector and tribal housing programs

  • Contract and real estate law

  • Construction processes and management

  • Property management, operations, and maintenance (marketing, lease-up, regulatory compliance requirements, service delivery)

Even though housing development requires a deep well of knowledge and experience, you do not need to possess all the knowledge areas listed above within your organization. It will be important to understand where knowledge and experience exists within your staff, including opportunities to build it through your proposed project, and where you will invite additional knowledge and experience through more training of your existing staff; partnerships with other organizations; contractors; and your organization’s board (when one exists).

Many public-sector agencies require developers to apply for public-sector resources (including those available from the federal government, such as CDBG, HOME programs, and LIHTC) through a competitive application process. Having experienced staff or contractors who have prepared funding or grant applications can help with securing financing upfront.

At the same time, receipt of public resources often requires consistent and thorough monitoring and reporting. As part of examining your capacity for funding administration prior to starting development, consider what systems you have in place to track and use financial resources. For instance, do you have the necessary internal control and procedures for financial management? Are your systems designed to easily capture key program information for reporting purposes? Are multiple systems in use that would make it time-consuming or difficult to provide consistent reporting?

If you don’t have experienced grant writers on staff, there are organizations who receive funding to provide technical assistance–including National American Indian Housing Council and Enterprise Community Partners–and they can help get you started with a funding application process.

Does your organization have the operational support to undertake development? Building on administrative capacity for development, you will need to understand the impact of your project on your organization’s operations and support staff. Staffing impacts to consider are:

  • Human Resources to support hiring new staff or doing professional development of existing staff.

  • Information technology (IT) to assist with purchasing new software systems to track a complex project or assist with property management. They may also be able to provide expertise about IT components of your project, if you aim to incorporate Internet access or computer facilities onsite.

  • Accounting and finance to help you understand the financial impact to your organization when undertaking your proposed project and if your organization’s balance sheet can meet public- and private-sector funder requirements. These roles are in addition to the administrative capacity for funding discussed above.

  • Property Management to support the day-to-day operation of the property including resident case management, maintenance, and marketing for lease-up. 

The most important way to ensure that you are working in a way that is culturally responsible is to be sure that you have actively engaged Tribal Leadership.

Each project will be different, and the capacities and experience outlined above are not inclusive of all the individual complexities that arise during the development process. Use this to get started and you can begin to develop your own internal list as the project evolves.

Tribal sovereignty means that the responsibility for economic growth falls on the tribe, which can feel overwhelming in projects as daunting as affordable housing. It is always possible, with enough funding, to outsource development through loan officers, consultants, and construction teams. Keep in mind the possibilities to enhance tribal knowledge, although that will take time. Each step of the way, building tribal staff expertise ultimately strengthens your Native nation.


Being able to leverage more funding programs enables more resources for a development project. However, more grants creates a complementary challenge: the ability to effectively administer them. Many tribal governments reported not seeking funding due to the administration burden associated with regulations, compliance, and reporting.

At the same time, many tribal organizations have pursued solutions to help reduce their administrative costs:

  • Dedicated program staff – While dedicated staff may not be an option for smaller tribes, having staff assigned to manage specific funding sources or programs provides continuity and builds internal capacity for funding administration.
  • Cross-training staff – You can also add or reduce the administrative costs associated with different funding sources by cross-training existing staff on different programs and systems. This cross-training enables you to draw on staff as needed or increase your capacity for administration during busier times, such as during annual reporting timeframes or at the end of fiscal years, without having to hire additional staff.
  • Creation of nonprofits Some tribes have formed nonprofit organizations to serve as a housing developer. A nonprofit enables tribes to create and sustain partnerships with other nonprofits and receive tax-free gifts. Strong institutional support either through an executive director of a nonprofit, or supportive tribal leaders can assist with pursuing leverage and addressing the administrative challenges that accompany administering financing among some tribes.
  • Use of consultants – Small staffs can be supplemented with knowledgeable consultants, especially those with experience with common sources of funding used to development housing on tribal land.
  • Use of TA – There are national nonprofits and CDFIs dedicated to supporting housing development, and tribes may be able to access their expertise to assist with any knowledge gaps. Another great resource for tribal departments and TDHEs comes from the HUD T/TA grant, which can support housing development and provide cost-savings.  For example, the intermediaries like NAIHC will have a direct contract with the consultant to complete the deliverables, the budget and timeline. In turn, the consultant works directly with the Tribe and reports directly to NAIHC.


Photo Credit Here
Case Study
Sail River Longhouse Apartments
Makah Tribe WA

Four hours outside of Seattle in Neah Bay, WA, there is a new kind of Longhouse: a 21 unit permanent affordable housing property called Sail River Longhouse Apartments.

Like any tribal project, this started with bringing tribal leaders together--including from other tribes--to conduct visioning for the project and ensure that the Makah tribe was comfortable with the idea and had accurate expectations of how to get through the process. The tribe saw that their existing housing services weren’t serving all their tribal members, including those that had previous evictions, arrests, or drug-related issues. Permanent Supportive Housing was an easy solution.

The project was able to incorporate beautiful and holistic design principals, including Sustainable Development standards, a garden-style building, and a landscaped courtyard. Residents are at the center of the neighborhood and included alongside other tribal members.

For the $3.4 million Low-Income Housing Tax Credit project, Enterprise was the syndicator and also assisted through their CDFI with a loan of $350,000. Robin Thorne at RT Hawk Housing Alliance assisted with the Native-owned tax credit consulting. This was the first tax credit project with Makah tribe.

This was a part of a larger Sail River Heights, which will include single family units as well. By serving as the anchor project of a larger development, the housing-first model gets ahead of NIMBYism by modeling its success as the center of the community’s culture. Not only does the property support residents who were formerly homeless, but it also includes health care, employment, and counseling services and is adjacent to a community building, wellness center, health care campus, and community garden. This project inspired the housing authority to incorporate services in all of their housing, because they saw a solution to having to evict residents in other developments.

Already there are examples of success where residents have been able to leave supportive housing for rental or homeownership opportunities.

Back to top