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Bill key to open doors: Legislation makes housing easier on reservations

WASHINGTON - Legislation that would bring housing opportunities closer to reality at affordable rates for American Indians on reservations was introduced in Congress.

The legislation introduced by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. may not see light of day before next year's session, but it appears to have no visible opposition and a bi-partisan effort could determine passage.

The bill amends the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act of 1996 in a number of areas that will be more beneficial to Indian country.

The bill amends the rent requirement of 30 percent of income and will impose rent not to exceed an established fair market rent. It also allows for tribes and housing authorities to establish reserve accounts to ensure funding for projects such as infrastructure, maintenance and other types of economic development, Sen. Johnson said.

Grant funds from HUD could be retained over successive grant years allowing tribes for better latitude for planning. It will amend the Civil Rights Act to clear tribes to qualify for USDA funding without violating the Civil Rights Act and it will place the tribes and housing authorities and other designated entities to qualify for Youthbuild grants.

"I've been listening to tribal housing authorities in South Dakota and across the nation and noticed that there are a myriad of modest legislative changes that could make a big difference in the tremendous goal in getting tribal people appropriately housed," Sen. Johnson said.

With a poverty rate twice that of the rest of the country, housing conditions in Indian country are substandard on most reservations with overcrowding, lack of good water, poor waste management facilities and very high fuel costs.

"We've got to give housing authorities more flexibility in their ability to manage their housing needs and greater access to program funding," Sen. Johnson said.

Under previous housing acts and NAHASDA, renters on reservations pay 30 percent of their income for housing. At times that is a high percentage for people on low incomes, so the amendments in the bill will provide for fair market value pricing for rental housing.

Sen. Johnson said this proposal will save funding that should be used in other areas by eliminating the need for income disclosure and verification and deduction calculation procedures for which tribes and housing authorities are responsible.

The fair market rent will be determined for existing or newly constructed dwelling units of a size and type similar to, and located in the same market area as the home in question.

Families on rent-to-own plans may choose either the fair market rent value or the 30 percent, whichever is appropriate for the family income.

"Giving tribes the burden of serving extremely low income families but allowing for supplemental subsidy to support their efforts; it has been narrowly defined in a way that doesn't allow for the same flexibility as we see in public housing," said Russell "Rusty" Sossaman, chairman of the National American Indian Housing Council.

"This amendment would prevent those situations."

The Native American Housing Enhancement Act of 2003 provides that Indian tribes are to be given Indian preference for housing programs so that funds can be leveraged with other federal or privates funds. Indian preference will allow funds from the United States Department of Agriculture to go toward tribal housing without violating the Civil Rights Act.

Sen. Johnson said Indian preference in this case has nothing to do with civil rights, but is a relationship between the USDA and other agencies on a government to government basis.

Amending the National Affordable Housing Act of 1990 to allow American Indian tribes grants for Youthbuild will be a major step toward training youth in the building trades and also to teach youth about financial credit and mortgage responsibilities.

The program offers job training, education, counseling and leadership development to unemployed and out of school young adults ages 16 - 24. The participants construct and rehabilitate affordable housing in their communities that are owned and managed by the housing authorities and are used permanently for low-income housing.

Accessibility to that program was eliminated with the enactment of NAHASDA.

"Currently there is a lack of federal assistance for tribal youth programs. And Youthbuild is an excellent program the tribes should be able to take part in and therefore break the cycle of substance abuse and poverty," Sossaman said.

The establishment of reserve accounts allowed for in the amendment will afford tribes a manageable fund resource in times when funding is either slow or non-existent.

"By allowing the establishment of reserve accounts is simply just good business practice. Tribes like all businesses need to be prepared for contingencies when funds stop flowing in," Sossaman said.

He alluded to last year when the fiscal year 2003 budget wasn't approved until the middle of 2003 and many tribes struggled to keep their programs afloat. The reserve funds section in Sen. Johnson's amendment would eliminate that hardship.

The bill will have trouble in this session because time is running out. Sen. Johnson said he would try to get it into the agenda of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

"I would hope this bill will be relatively non-controversial and that we could make these corrections and further facilitate the tribal housing all across the country," Sen. Johnson said.