Roughly 15 miles outside of Gallup on tribal land, a dilapidated mobile home sits in a scrubby lot.
By the looks of it, children must live here, too, as there are tricycles and toys scattered in the dirt. Several small dogs are tethered outside and whine and wag their tails at the construction crew.
Just feet from the mobile home, the family’s brand new house is being finished, with several Air National Guard members inside laying flooring and hooking up the plumbing and electricity.
The family living inside has probably been waiting years for this.
They weren’t alone.
Though the Navajo Nation encompasses millions of acres in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, thousands of tribal members live on the reservation in need of a home.
According to recent estimates, the housing shortage numbers about 30,000.
That can result in families living in overcrowded mobile homes, sometimes without running water or electricity. Over half of Navajo Nation homes had no indoor plumbing as of 2011, according to the Navajo Housing Authority.
But some groups are trying to combat the shortage one home at a time, including the nonprofit Southwest Indian Foundation — with the assistance of the U.S. military.
“The real mutual benefit is the training that the unit gets and the free labor that the foundation is getting,” said Col. Tim Dotson, commander of the South Carolina Air National Guard’s 169th Missions Support Group. “It’s a great way to display military power in a different way, a humanitarian kind of way.”
Over the past two weeks, 40 members of the 169th Civil Engineer Squadron constructed several three-bedroom homes destined for Navajo veterans.
The squadron will construct and install every part of each home, including the plumbing and electrical system.
The 1,100-square-foot homes have three bedrooms and one bathroom. They’re mostly assembled in a SWIF warehouse in Gallup before being trucked to their final destinations.
All summer, military units from around the country have cycled through the warehouse, learning skills they’ll be able to use during natural disasters or on a deployment overseas.
Home ownership obstacles
The foundation has provided around 270 homes for Navajos in need since its partnership with the military began in 1998.
SWIF has its own application and screening process, but it recently also started working with the Navajo Veterans Administration to provide homes to veterans.
The free labor the military provides is extremely valuable to the organization.
While each home is impactful to its recipient, who will have a home for a lifetime, there are still tens of thousands more homes needed to alleviate the shortage.
At the root of the housing shortage is a simple fact: Most of the land on the reservation cannot be owned by individuals.
The vast majority of reservation land is held in trust by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Most people living on the land must pay for long-term leases.
“We give them the homes because there’s no economic mechanism for them to purchase a home unless they’re off the reservation,” said Sr. Chief William Woolf of the Navy’s Mobile Construction Battalion 22 headquartered at Port Hueneme, Calif., who is managing the military training program this summer. “A house that is worth $120,000, when you put it on the reservation, becomes worth nothing because you don’t own the property on which it sits.”
Most banks are hesitant to give out a loan for a home that’s to be built on a reservation, as they won’t be able to hold the land as collateral.
“Getting financing to build a home is very difficult, if not impossible, for most families,” said SWIF project director Jeremy Boucher.
Plus, Boucher said, high unemployment and low wages would make it difficult for those living on the reservation to get a loan anyway.
Debt of gratitude
For the military members on hand Tuesday, though, it was gratifying to complete even a single home for someone who needed it.
“It’s like every generation of military people, we owe a debt to the people who served before us and it gives us a chance to help pay that debt back,” said Sr. Master Sgt. Tom McTeer of South Carolina’s 169th.
McTeer described meeting a veteran who would be moving into one of the homes when the man stopped by the warehouse recently.
“That was worth its weight in gold, just seeing his face,” McTeer said. “That gives us even more incentive to do the best job we possibly can because we know this is going to be somebody’s home.”