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Tribal Homeownership and Business Development Could Be Affected by Government Delays

Posted on November 07, 2023

Anyone who has bought a home or other real estate knows timing is everything when bidding on a property. Timely responses from lenders, title companies, and others are critical to locking in favorable interest rates and securing closing and move dates.

But when real estate transactions occur on tribal or certain other lands, Tribes and their citizens typically must also gain approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Tribes have reported delays in working with BIA—both in terms of getting real estate transactions approved and with recording their transactions. This can cause problems for Tribes and their citizens, including higher costs.

In recognition of Native American Heritage Month, today’s WatchBlog post looks at our recent report on these issues, including what Tribes told us and what could be causing delays at BIA.  

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Stock art image showing a mortgage application on a desk with house keys and a pen sitting on top.

 

How delays at BIA impact tribal citizens

BIA has an important role in helping Tribes address affordable housing shortages and economic development. But when it comes to approving real estate transactions, we found that BIA’s reviews often take longer than expected—and that it fails to communicate timing issues with tribal clients.

Delays in BIA’s reviews and long waits for approval create obstacles to home ownership and can lead to higher costs when interest rates or construction prices rise, according to Tribes and others. Some tribal citizens may choose to live off their reservation altogether so that they can move into a home more quickly—a decision that may result in living farther away from their families and tribal services.

Further, delays while working with BIA can affect Tribes’ and their citizens’ ability to use and develop their lands. In 2022, we reported that obtaining approval for projects to develop energy or natural resources can delay projects and make them less attractive to investors or even cause investors to pull out.  

What’s causing delays?

BIA’s process for reviewing real estate transactions was designed to protect the ownership interest of Tribes and tribal citizens and is rigorous and often time intensive. It requires additional steps that are not required for those who live or operate businesses on other types of land.

In our new report, we found several instances in which BIA is not meeting its regulatory and internal deadlines. For example, in FYs 2021 and 2022, about a quarter of the applications for certain types of mortgages didn’t meet BIA’s regulatory deadline.

When we looked at how BIA was tracking the timeliness of its reviews and approvals, we found that it doesn’t have complete and accurate data to help it understand this issue. We also found that BIA could do more to assess and monitor processing times, which could help it improve timeliness.

Additionally, we found issues with how BIA communicates with Tribes—both about what to expect with BIA’s review process and the status of Tribes’ and their citizens’ applications. Without addressing these concerns, BIA will continue to overlook the root causes that create an untimely environment for Tribes and their citizens.

How could BIA’s processes be improved?

BIA needs to improve its delivery of its real estate services by taking actions to address its timeliness and communication, such as analyzing its processing times and making a plan for improvement. Without these actions, BIA may not be as timely as possible and could delay tribal citizens moving into homes or starting businesses.   

We made six recommendations, including that BIA enhance the accuracy and completeness of the data it collects on real estate transactions, and that it establish performance goals and measures for monitoring processing times and complying with regulatory and internal deadlines. Having this information and performance goals will allow BIA to address the root cause for delays.

We also recommended that BIA assess how it communicates with Tribes and stakeholders regarding real estate services and find areas for improvement. Improved communication could help Tribes and others manage their expectations and help avoid frustration while working with the agency, including while waiting for an application to be reviewed and approved.

You can learn more about the BIA’s role in providing real estate services to Tribes and tribal citizens by reading our report.


  • GAO’s fact-based, nonpartisan information helps Congress and federal agencies improve government. The WatchBlog lets us contextualize GAO’s work a little more for the public. Check out more of our posts at GAO.gov/blog.