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Chester Carl, Guest Columnist: Navajo Housing Authority moves past critics to real challenges

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For nearly a year now, Navajo Housing Authority has been under attack from certain individuals who went to anyone that would listen to their complaints: the NHA Board of Commissioners, every tribal official and committee, federal officials, the local media, and others we may never know about.

And each time, I was called in to answer their allegations, and each time their claims were politely dismissed.

But last October, probably to clear the air, Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., asked for a review by the most powerful investigative agency of the U.S. government ? the Office of Inspector General. We welcomed this review.

From December to January OIG staff carefully looked through every document, phone record, travel log, bank record, receipt, and transaction we had in our possession. In June they completed their reports.

In the simplest terms, the report said that other than violations often found in large organizations, NHA was properly handling the problems and expressed complete confidence in our own review. The reports also noted $6,430 missing from one of our sub-offices, which we voluntarily placed into the hands of the Navajo Nation Prosecutor's office.

Through all this, it became clear that allegations were just retaliation by a community housing board whose contract was revoked by NHA for violations that could have jeopardized funding to all Navajos. For this, I became a target and was dragged through numerous newspaper stories and editorials, the last editorial even called for my removal.

I sat back and never responded to any of this.

In the Christian way the Bible says, 'the truth shall set me free.' It's almost the same in the traditional Navajo way in which I was raised: work hard, be strong, get up at dawn and pray to the holy ones, and run, so you won't be lazy and you'll have a strong mind. So I kept running and running every morning. It gave me strength, endurance, and made me mentally tough. Years later when I stopped running competitively, I'd won the Pikes Peak Marathon three times, and a best of 27th place at the prestigious Boston Marathon.

My upbringing probably gave me the stamina and courage to get through times like the past year.

The real challenges NHA faces

But I understand their frustration, especially when you're told you haven't paid your rent ? when you did; or when you're asked to relocate so NHA can renovate your home, and the project takes longer than expected; or when a contractor's shoddy work becomes evident after a tenant begins complaining ? then to find they're out of business.

We know that problems like these don't win us any empathy or friends.

Established in 1963, NHA is a large organization; almost 1,000 employees, spread out across the reservation to oversee 7,500 homes and construct new homes. Problems will always happen.

I also know the frustration when $1.25 billion is needed to just build a shelter (no utilities) for 30,000 families in demand right now. Yet, Navajo only gets an average of $90 million per year, of which $25 million is spent on maintenance, rehabilitation, and rental assistance for existing homes.

Or when we must spend 30 to 40 cents for every $1, for clearance and just to prepare a future home site for utility connections; while inner city housing authorities get to spend almost the full amount on construction because they're site ready. Or before we even do anything the project is stuck in red tape because we must address land clearance issues such as customary use and right-of-way ? only because we live on an American Indian reservation.

All of this slows progress in Indian country to a turtle's pace. Then you see 200 home subdivisions going up at lightening pace, off the reservation, and wonder what's wrong.

And how does one make house payments or repairs when jobs are scarce? And in a time of constant social change among our people, how do we build safe communities? Or how do we build homes in remote areas that are in desperate need when there isn't even a light pole or telephone line nearby?

These are some of the real battles we're fighting each day.

Right now it takes the BIA anywhere from one to two years to transfer a title to homeowners. This is like getting the title to your car ? one year after paying it off. This is unacceptable to you and me, and only happens in Indian country. But last month, a congressman appointed me to a special commission that will develop a report telling Congress what must be done to change this existing BIA title transfer process.

And for several years, Navajo has been getting the lion's share of Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act monies, while some tribes have been getting $25,000 per year. Recently, these tribes have banded together and are fighting to reduce our share to just $50 million per year ? then raise theirs. We can't even meet our housing demand now. So what do we do? Our only hope is to work together and show Congress that Indian country needs $1.2 billion a year, not $650 million, so that nobody has to live in abandoned vehicles, cardboard shacks or dugouts.

NHA meeting the challenges

So what are we doing?

Five years ago, Indian country was getting $450 million for housing. Today, it's $650 million of which Navajo gets 14 percent ($94 million last year). Five years ago, NHA had $8 million in reserves; it's now $42 million. Five years ago, NHA was building 100 homes a year. Today, it's 1,100 homes a year.

Years ago, I was chairman of a national committee which created the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act, an act that has allowed NHA to double and even triple our annual $90 million through unique leveraging and mortgage programs. For the first time, middle class Navajos can buy a home through our programs and gain equity.

NHA recently invested $1 million into a reservation-wide computer network to keep a closer track of all records and payments. NHA has adopted a policy that requires us to commit funding to creative programs that foster economic development, self-sufficiency, and better police services like neighborhood watch programs. And there's much more.

NHA is a unique organization on Navajo land that often must take actions contrary to the Navajo way. But for all of us to succeed, NHA must be run without deference to anyone.

Editor's note: Chester Carl has been CEO of Navajo Housing Authority for five years. Twice, he's been elected chairman of the National Indian Housing Council, an advocacy organization representing 500 tribes across the country He has been appointed to a special congressional commission to examine land title transfers in Indian country.