BIA title operations may be turned over to tribes

Author:
Updated:
Original:

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Tribes could gain control over the BIA's title process,
eliminating a major roadblock to Native homeownership.

That's the prospect Rep. Rick Renzi put before tribal housing officials at
the National American Indian Housing Council's recent legislative
conference, saying he was going to call the BIA in on the carpet over its
notoriously slow title clearances and that Congress might take control away
from the bureau if it doesn't demonstrate real progress on the backlog.

Renzi, a Republican from Arizona, said the House of Representatives'
housing subcommittee will travel to Indian country this year to hold a
hearing in which BIA's feet will be held to the fire. The legislator
promised Indian leaders at a subcommittee hearing in Tuba City, Ariz., on
the Navajo reservation (which BIA did not attend) that he would follow up
on the problem.

"BIA is a great impediment to homeownership in Indian country around the
nation," he told the legislative conference, saying the bureau routinely
took 18 to 24 months on a process -- the transfer of title on a property to
a new owner -- that's done in 30 to 45 days by private industry.

Back in the 1990s, a government audit found an incredible 113 staff-year
backlog in processing title transfers at BIA.

Renzi said the hearing would be held in Arizona, perhaps in the Sedona or
Camp Verde area. He said the BIA has told him that computers and software
to help speed up the process are now in place. Congress will now set a
timetable for the bureau to bring its process in line with private
industry; and if it's not met, "tribes can take over title searches or get
private help to allow title searches."

Getting a mortgage in Indian country requires a title search, just as it
does in the rest of the nation. BIA's title searches, called title status
reports, are analogous to the title searches and title insurance provided
by private firms like Stewart Title, Fidelity National and First American.

Renzi called the process essential for successful economic development in
Indian country. "Homeownership is the key," he said. "It's the absolute
cornerstone."

He also told tribal housing leaders that passage of the Native American
Housing Enhancement Act would help them better house tribal people.

For one thing, it would allow tribal housing entities to carry over federal
money from year to year, instead of facing a "use it or lose it" situation.
Tribes have faced criticism over the slow pace of committing housing funds,
something they have said is a result of the time it takes to develop
projects. Projects also are delayed by bad weather and labor issues, he
noted.

In addition, NAHEA would restore YouthBuild eligibility to tribes. Tribal
youth can now earn school credit through the program, earn money and learn
a trade -- vital alternatives to the epidemic of methamphetamine traffic
and abuse sweeping tribal housing projects.

Renzi said that federal Indian housing assistance has not kept pace with
inflation or the increasing costs of building materials. The administration
tried to cut Indian housing money by $109 million in the last fiscal year,
but intense lobbying managed to restore funding to the approximate level of
the year before.

The congressman, whose district contains many Native homelands such as the
Navajo Nation and two Apache reservations, endorsed NAIHC's recommendations
for increased funding, to $748 million to fund housing block grants under
the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act and $77
million to $80 million for the Indian Community Development Block Grant.

He was joined in his call for more housing assistance money by Sen. Byron
Dorgan of North Dakota. The Democrat, in a video shown to the conference,
said 90,000 American Indians were homeless or nearly homeless, and that in
America, "poverty still has the face of an American Indian."

Dorgan asked, "Does our society believe people deserve basic shelter? If
so, then we ought to fund it."

NAIHC itself held a press conference during its legislative meeting to ask
for the return of more than $4 million in training funds cut by the
administration for FY '07. The group uses the money to provide more than 40
seminars a year, including hugely popular ones on the methamphetamine
crisis.

In FY '06, the administration also zeroed out the program, but Congress
restored $2 million in funding for it.

NAIHC Chairman Chester Carl, Navajo, asked for the program to be funded at
$5 million. Carl, who also heads the Navajo Housing Authority, noted that
in the last fiscal year, Indian housing entities produced 6,000 units of
housing that was either built, bought or rehabilitated.

NAIHC Director Gary Gordon, Mohawk, noted that more than 2,000 people took
NAIHC training last year.