Quality affordable housing is a challenge throughout the United States, but it’s a particularly serious problem for American Indians living on tribal lands.

A 2017 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report found that 57 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native households had a housing problem, compared with 40 percent of U.S. households overall. Those problems include a cost burden or a physical problem such as system deficiencies (e.g., plumbing or heating), condition problems, or overcrowding.

Enter the Seneca Nation Housing Authority’s Michael Gernatt and Murray Williams.

Like many Indian Housing Authorities throughout the country, the Seneca Nation Housing Authority (SNHA) is meeting the housing challenge by constructing and renovating affordable housing with HUD funding.

For SNHA senior project manager Murray Williams, the purchase price is only one side of the affordability equation. Making homes energy efficient makes them more affordable to own in the long term.

The Seneca Nation Housing Authority builds homes for Seneca members whose income is below 80 percent of median income guidelines. When buyers complete their mortgage terms, they own their home outright.

Gernatt, project manager for the SNHA, and Williams, senior project manager, oversee the development and management of federally funded homebuyer and rental properties in two Seneca Nation of Indians territories. In the homebuyer program, the housing authority builds homes for Seneca members whose income is below 80 percent of median income guidelines. When buyers complete their mortgage terms, they own their home outright.

But controlling the purchase price is only one side of the affordability equation, Williams says. “These are low-income houses, so if we can make them more energy-efficient, long term, these homebuyers or tenants are going to be saving money, which is going to help them out.”

The Affordability Equation

To keep both construction costs and energy bills more affordable, the SNHA relies on propane systems throughout the home.

The Seneca Nation Housing Authority builds homes for Seneca members whose income is below 80 percent of median income guidelines. When buyers complete their mortgage terms, they own their home outright.

Unlike natural gas, propane is reliably available throughout the Cattaraugus territory, which stretches from Lake Erie to Gowanda, New York, and the Allegany territory, located along the Allegheny River in southern Cattaraugus County. “We live in a more of a country area,” Gernatt says. “The homes that don’t have the public amenities don’t have natural gas, so we go propane.”

Propane furnaces and water heaters are an affordable option to provide the comfortable heat homeowners need, Williams says. Electric heat would be too expensive. “To do that you’ve got to upgrade your electrical panel to a larger size,” he says. “Typically we only have a maximum capacity of a 200-amp circuit. If you start throwing in electric heat, then you’re going to use all of that up and there’s no room for anything else.”

While the housing authority has used standard forced-air furnaces and water heaters in the past, future homes will implement propane combi-boilers that provide energy-efficient heat and hot water together. “You’re paying about the same, but it’s the energy savings, and [the hot water] is on demand, which is good, too,” Williams says.

Many homes also include propane ranges, a preferred cooking source to electric, and propane dryers, which are less expensive to operate, especially in areas with higher electric rates.

For SNHA senior project manager Murray Williams, the purchase price is only one side of the affordability equation. Making homes energy efficient makes them more affordable to own in the long term..

Although the housing authority’s homes don’t include fireplaces, they reflect the approach of the Propane Energy Pod. Homes built with the Propane Energy Pod maximize the benefits of propane by using it for space heating, water heating, cooking, clothes drying, and fireplaces — and they’re eligible for incentives of up to $1,500 per home and $7,500 per year.

This spring, the SNHA began construction on a home that’s fairly typical for the organization. Located near Irving, New York, it has three bedrooms and is about 1,500 square feet. Like many of the housing authority’s homes, it will be fueled by propane. And it will provide a Seneca Nation member with a home that’s affordable both to own and operate.

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Jeffrey Lee