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Congress Overreaching: Navajo Housing Takes Second Big Hit

The Navajo Nation is fighting a second multi-million dollar hit to its housing budget this year, the latest one is raising an alarm about overreach.

The Navajo Nation is fighting a second multi-million dollar hit to its housing budget this year, and the latest one is raising an alarm about overreach, by Congress, into Indian affairs.

On June 25, the Senate Appropriations Committee released the fiscal year 2016 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) funding bill, with a proposal to cap any recipient’s annual allocation of Indian Housing Block Grant funds to only 10 percent of the program budget. Congress has appropriated around $650 million to the Block Grant account, which means funding for the Navajo Nation would be stopped at $65 million. The Nation’s expected budget through the program was between $80 and $90 million. The Navajo Nation would be the only tribe affected by the new language.

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Mellor Willie, the Navajo Nation’s Washington D.C. political advisor, said the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act gives tribes the authority to negotiate the funding formula with the Housing and Urban Development secretary.

“It should be done through negotiated lawmaking,” he said. “The tribes have already done that. It’s disappointing that appropriators have taken this language and included it in the bill without any reasoning, and without any consultation with tribes.”

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Willie said it’s especially concerning that the cuts have been proposed through an appropriations process.

“The appropriations process goes so quickly that there’s not necessarily the oversight that would happen with regular legislation,” he said. “The bill language wasn’t even released until after it was passed by the subcommittee and went on to the full Senate.”

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye added in a statement that the THUD language is unacceptable because it “disregards the spirit of tribal self-determination, which is the fundamental basis of NAHASDA.” The Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act, or NAHASDA, established the Block Grant program in 1996.

The Navajo Housing Authority is the largest Indian housing authority, and the 8th largest public housing authority in the United States. The Nation faces an unmet housing need of approximately $9 billion, by its own estimate.

The proposed cut to the Block Grant program comes on the heels of House Bill 360, released in March of this year, that would limit NAHASDA allocations beginning in 2015 based on unspent funds. The formula would cost the Nation $81 million in the first year alone. It would also cripple the tribe’s ongoing, five-year plan to spend down a backlog of unspent funds that accrued partly because of a government-imposed moratorium on development called the Bennett Freeze, and partly due to a spending moratorium in response to fraud allegations against a previous director of the Navajo Housing Authority. Both freezes have now ended. In the past two years, the Nation has spent $288 million to build 580 new housing units, modernize 964 older units, develop 16 group homes and acquire three housing units for people with disabilities.

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The Senate version of the bill, S 710, would delay the allocation limits until 2018, by which time the Nation will be able to complete its spend-down plan. If S 710 passes the Senate, it will have to be reconciled with HR 360, the House version, prior to a final vote.

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As for the Block Grant cap, it’s part of a draft-funding bill that still must go through the full Senate; the House and Senate will then conference to reconcile their versions. So far, the current Congress has not navigated this process to pass a single appropriations bill.