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HEARTH Passage Aids Removal of Indian Homeownership Barrier

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A significant barrier to tribal homeownership may change as the House of Representatives, in a rare show of bipartisan support, has passed the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership Act without a single dissenting vote.

The HEARTH Act, which aims to give tribes more control over processing title searches (now the province of the Bureau of Indian Affairs), passed 400-0 on Tuesday and now awaits action on the Senate floor. The bill has been amended on the Senate side and so would require a negotiation should it pass the Senate.

Specifically, the act would “allow tribes to enter into certain surface leases without prior expressed approval of the Secretary of the Interior,” according to the National American Indian Housing Council (NAIHC). Instead, tribes could approve leases directly.

Currently the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) processes lease requests by issuing title status reports (TSR) to state there are no liens encumbering the property. But delays in getting these title searches are legendary in Indian country. (Former Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Arizona, told an NAIHC meeting in 2006 that at that time BIA “routinely” took 18-24 months to get them done.)

Lack of a TSR delays granting of mortgages on the leases in question because lenders want to be assured there are no encumbrances on the property.

Reservation trust land is technically held by the government in trust for tribes and individual Indians and in general cannot be mortgaged as private property (“fee simple” land) is. A “leasehold” mortgage can be made, though, on the lease a tribe grants to its member.

Arlen P. Quetawki, governor of the Pueblo of Zuni in New Mexico, hopes mortgages can close in a matter of weeks on his homeland if the bill is signed into law. “The last two home loans in Zuni Pueblo have taken close to a year to close,” something he called “simply unacceptable.”

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Cheryl Causley, Bay Mills Indian Community and chair of NAIHC, said she was “thrilled” by the vote. “It is a huge step in the right direction and will help increase tribal homeownership across Indian country.”

Edwin “Paul” Torres, governor of the Pueblo of Isleta in New Mexico, said the bill “is a statement that Indian people know best how lending should occur on our lands.”

The bill has taken several years to get through the House of Representatives. It was introduced by Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, in 2009 and passed the House Natural Resources subcommittee in 2011.

His office issued a statement that HEARTH “would allow tribes to exercise greater control over their lands and eliminate bureaucratic delays that stand in the way of homeownership in tribal communities.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, spoke on the floor of Congress to urge passage of the HEARTH Act. He said the Act “empowers tribes, encourages tribal self-government, decreases the dependency of tribes on the federal government and speeds up economic development in Indian country.”

Rep. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, D-American Samoa, also spoke in favor of the bill.

In the Senate, the bill was introduced by Rep. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, last year. It was amended by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, to reaffirm the Secretary of the Interior’s role in taking land into trust for tribes, NAIHC said.

NAIHC is urging the Senate “to consider action on S.703 before its summer recess.”