Court hears arguments about funding for major Native housing program

DENVER – A controversy surrounding a federal Indian housing program surfaced in appellate court in Denver Sept. 24, when an attorney for the Fort Peck (Montana) Housing Authority challenged the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over its policies under a block grant program.

The arguments, heard by a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, followed a federal district court ruling in 2006 in favor of the housing authority, which contended housing units qualified for resident ownership should be included in an eligibility count for block grant funds allocation.

Although judges heard HUD’s argument on an appeal from the lower court ruling, a related matter concerning jurisdiction over a refund of money to the housing authority went unheard.

The case “is important because it will determine whether or not tribes that operate large home ownership programs like rent-to-own will or will not lose a significant amount of block grant funding that comes from this particular source,” said John Fredericks, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, housing authority counsel for the Fort Berthold reservation, N.D.

“It doesn’t give anyone preferential treatment – it just establishes a general number” to be used in determining how many low-income housing units should be available under HUD in a given community, he said.

The federal district court for Colorado had ruled that home ownership programs as of Sept. 30, 1997, “must be included in the formula for determining its allocation of the annual congressional appropriation for Indian housing block grants.”

If home ownership units were excluded, tribes with a large number of such units would suffer “decreases in their share of the annual apportionment” while tribes with more rental units would receive a greater share, the court found.

The FPHA also held that Congress mandated a floor for low-income housing allocation based on the number of units as of Sept. 30, 2007, and that funding could not fall below the amount required for that number.

HUD argued, however, that under the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1966 it was authorized to establish a formula for annual appropriations for low-income housing based on the number of existing units, the extent of poverty in the area, and other factors constituting “very broad authority.”

The federal housing agency also determined that some states had failed to remove paid-off houses from the housing inventory and therefore were overcompensated for housing used as a determinant of funds allocation. HUD attempted to collect the amounts, but the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in turn sued HUD and prevailed.

The federal agency withheld block grant funds to tribes under NAHASDA following the district court’s ruling in favor of Fort Peck as it attempted to recover alleged overpayments of more than $1 million to Fort Peck from 1998 through 2002.

The circuit court did not hear arguments as to whether it had jurisdiction to order HUD to refund money it had required the FPHA to repay.

No date was set for the court to issue findings on the oral arguments.

He sees plenty of hope in the relationships the tribe has forged with the state of Idaho and Kootenai County, he said.

This year for the first time, the Governor’s Cup fundraising golf tournament was held in north Idaho, at the tribe-owned Circling Raven Golf Course. The event raised $750,000 for high school scholarships, and Allan is proud of the outcome.

“Twenty years ago, that wouldn’t have happened.”