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Conference considers stimulus housing bonus

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WASHINGTON – The annual legislative conference of the National American Indian Housing Council to be held Feb. 25 – 26 is sure to be buzzing with the news that President Barack Obama’s stimulus package contains an additional $510 million for Indian housing.

According to NAIHC, the money is divided into two equal parts: $255 million to be allocated according to the existing Indian Housing Block Grant formula “with priority to projects that can be bid and contracted within 180 days from the date the funds are available to recipients,” and $255 million to be allocated competitively “with priority to projects that will spur construction and rehabilitation and create employment opportunities for low-income and unemployed persons.”

On the second half, tribal Indian Housing Authorities or tribally designated housing entities must obligate 100 percent of the funds within one year, spend at least 50 percent of the money within two years and 100 percent within three years.

“Accountability and transparency will be key to the execution of this plan,” said Wendy Helgemo, NAIHC’s director of governmental affairs. “The American people will be watching and reporting on where and how the money is being spent via, which goes live once signed into law.”

Any amounts not used by the timeline are subject to recapture by the Treasury Department. The bill specifies .5 percent of the total can be used for staff, training and technical assistance, and this amount can be used through Sept. 30, 2012.

Indian housing also stands to benefit from other amounts in the package, such as $20 million allocated to the BIAs’ Housing Improvement Program. Indian housing will also benefit partially from $545 million to IHS, which helps Indian housing sanitation.

The housing provisions are substantial, though by no means will they solve the Indian housing problem alone. For comparison, tribes in recent years have been awarded just over $600 million in housing block grant money through the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act. The BIA’s HIP generally gets $25 million a year. So the stimulus amounts are about 80 percent of an average year’s funding.

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Estimates of the total amount required to adequately house the nation’s tribes range up to $25 billion. NAHASDA required tribes to use their housing block grants to get additional money for housing from private sector sources, and tribes have been reaching out for this for the past 12 years. They have also been seeking private mortgage funding for Indian country with some success, as with the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 184 Indian Home Loan Guarantee Program. But there have been setbacks with Native people targeted by the kind of unscrupulous mortgage lenders who set off the current national economic crisis. Trust land issues have also made mortgage lending difficult in Indian country, as have the poverty of many tribal members and the lack of infrastructure in many of the rural areas they live in.

IHAs and TDHEs from around the country will be looking to HUD for guidance on when the money will be available.

The NAIHC plenary session will be held Feb. 25 at the DC Hyatt Regency. An afternoon session will be held in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee’s hearing room on Capitol Hill. Feb. 26 will be devoted to individual visits by the housing officials to Senators and Congressmen from their districts. Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. said they will attend.

At the plenary, legislative goals will be discussed along with presentations by government agency officials and legislators. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., and Paula Blunt, acting assistant Secretary of HUD for Public and Indian Housing, have confirmed their attendance.

Marty Shuravloff, NAIHC chairman, recently testified on the stimulus package before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He told the senators NAIHC has identified $2 billion in shovel ready projects, on both housing and infrastructure, in Indian country.

He advocated that a prohibition on using Indian health money for infrastructure be lifted.

After the passage of the bill, Shuravloff commented “more so than in other communities in the nation, these economic stimulus activities will set a course to create large numbers of jobs immediately, which will build the foundations for long-term economic growth in Native communities.”