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BIA mortgage backlog may become a distant memory

WASHINGTON- One of the most astonishing numbers in the history of American Indian mortgages is the 113-year backlog the BIA estimated it had back in 1997 on title reports, an amazing 332,448 documents in a queue that stifled any sort of reasonable prospect for mortgages to be made on Indian homelands.

The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, issued a report that found between 1992 and 1996 just 91 mortgages had been recorded to Indians on trust land in the country- a telling indication of the potency of the backlog.

This fall, the BIA has announced a series of forums on how to reorganize its 12 regional offices - and many in Indian country are saying it's about time.

The National American Indian Housing Council, for instance, went so far as to pass a resolution at its annual meeting in New Orleans in June demanding the agency streamline its process time on TSRs and title reconveyances to a "reasonable" 60 days.

Teresa Mojado, housing specialist of the Morongo (Calif.) Housing Authority, which co-sponsored the resolution, told the meeting that some of her tribal members have been waiting for up to two years for BIA title status reports (TSRs), without which mortgages cannot be closed.

Her Indian Housing Authority has had to insure houses on title reconveyances until the title is released by BIA.

To be fair to the BIA, since a federal directive that it move mortgages to the top of that long queue, some of its offices have made great strides in speeding up the process. In particular, lenders credit the Aberdeen (S.D.) area office with quick service on TSRs when mortgages are involved.

"The resolution is critical because Indian housing programs in many instances may not lease or encumber trust land without review and approval by the BIA," said NAIHC.

NAIHC Executive Director Gary Gordon feels "it is time for the BIA to recognize the reality of mortgage finance in Indian country," and the group's chair, Russell Sossamon, said the jam induces lenders to give up on Indian business, which hurts individual Indians but also "hampers economic development in Indian country, impeding something sorely needed - more jobs."

NAIHC quoted a memorandum opinion from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as saying BIA is using 10 different title systems around the country, and that "these systems contain overlapping and inconsistent information."

And it said that there is now a large backlog of corrections that has been building up, further hampering title recordation.