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Hearing spells out troubled home ownership process

WASHINGTON - Congressmen at a joint committee hearing July 19 got a
two-hour education on the complexities of home ownership procedures for
American Indians.

The process is bogged down by duplicate paperwork, snagged by inter-agency
bureaucratic requirements and delayed by a backlog of non-computerized
data, probate cases and the BIA's perennial underfunding and understaffing.

Combined, these elements can cause delays of up to two years for American
Indians seeking the "American dream" of home ownership.

The House Committee on Financial Services and the Committee on Resources
cosponsored the hearing, where talk centered on the problems involved in
issuing the BIA's title status report. The document compiles all of the
data regarding ownership, liens and other legal information on a parcel of
reservation or trust land and is required for home mortgages processed by
the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Public and
Indian Housing.

Roger Boyd, deputy assistant secretary for HUD's Office of Native American
Programs, testified, that some progress has been made since last year when
his office and the BIA signed a memorandum of understanding to develop a
quicker way of issuing land title searches for home ownership in Indian
country.

New regulations and guidelines, due to be released later this summer, "will
provide a uniform process that supports mortgage financing [and] the
creation of a centralized process will enhance the leasehold lending
process by eliminating the different policy interpretations that occur on a
regional basis," Boyd said.

The goal is to turn around applications within 30 days, said Arch Wells,
acting director of the BIA's Office of Trust Services.

But the office is mired in a Catch-22 situation. The staff is in the midst
of converting more than a century's worth of "pencil and paper" data on
land ownership into an automated computer system. Homeowner loans can't be
issued without a certified title service report. Wells' staff can't process
a certified TSR quickly not only because all of the records haven't been
"cleaned up" and automated, but also because there is a huge backlog of
probate cases to be processed.

"We've got 144 people working on strictly probate. That's not nearly enough
and I've had to extract those people to function on TSRs," Wells said.

Wells estimated that the conversion would be completed in eight months.

Rep. Barney Frank, I-Maine, grasped the situation as a personnel shortage
immediately.

"So, basically the Native Americans who want to take advantage of these
programs are being doubly victimized - historically, things got screwed up,
and now, because the people who should be helping them do documents are
busy unscrewing things up," Frank said.

Under questioning, Wells conceded that the situation is exacerbated "to
some degree" by the Cobell v. Norton case, which has diverted money from
the agency.

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Once the new system is in place, it will ensure better management of trust
accounts by tracking titles and leasing, forestry and grazing lands and
other agreements.

"It will allow you to manage most of the resources throughout Indian
country in automated fashion hooking into the land title - the title is
key. If you don't have correct title data, what do you have? That's the
reason we're doing this tremendous task in cleaning up the data," Wells
said.

But some congressmen were more interested in killing the messenger than
hearing the message.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said the information provided was
unacceptable. "All I hear from you is excuses. I think you'd better do a
better job of unraveling the problem and proposing a solution because we're
out of patience and so are the American tribes," Wasserman Schultz said.

Jim Matheson, D-Utah, suggested a solution that echoed the termination
policy of the 1950s. "Just give the land to the people it belongs to, take
it out of trust, write them a deed, hand it back to the tribe and say they
administer their own problems instead of having a trust status," Matheson
said.

Frank wanted to know how many people would be needed to solve the problem.

Wells, who has been in the position for only one year, said he is
developing a needs proposal that will justify a budgetary request.

Privatization is not an option, because the trust responsibility remains
with the government; and in any case, a private company would be faced with
the same data and the same daunting task "with less corporate memory to
understand it," Wells said.

Under questioning from Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., Boyd said that HUD would
consider accepting a single TSR generated by the BIA or one of its eight
regional offices rather than the two or sometimes three documents required.

Baca noted that Indian land continues to be lost through condemnations,
eminent domain, foreclosures and transfers. He asked what could be done to
prevent further loss.

The BIA has attempted to "stem that tide dramatically" by taking more fee
land into trust, Wells said. "As far as compensation other than what the
BIA is attempting to do right now, I have no other answer," Wells said.

"And we continue to steal from them," Baca said.

Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., the hearing's co-chair, arranged for another
hearing in eight months; "and then maybe during budget season you guys come
over and see me," he said to Boyd and Wells.