Housing council wonders about zeroed budgets

WASHINGTON – The National American Indian Housing Council keeps getting zeroed out of Bush administration budget requests, despite a track record of technical assistance in home ownership and upkeep that is pretty good in most respects and stellar in some.

For instance, council training in how to run successful tribal housing programs reached more than 2,100 people in 2005. And through February 2006, almost 250 Indian housing staff had been certified to help Indian families in the complex process of owning a home, an especially important consideration in communities historically excluded from mainstream financial channels and, therefore, seldom mentored in individual transactions as basic as applying for loans or establishing credit records.

So the zeroed budgets are enough to make them wonder at NAIHC, and one of the things they’ve wondered is whether they’re being penalized because their primary funding source – the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, through congressional appropriation – was slow in getting evaluative goals and standards in place to pass the government’s Program Assessment Rating Tool review.

PART is a Bush administration initiative designed to measure the performance of government programs against uniform benchmarks. Without measurable goals and standards in place, programs have a hard time proving their effectiveness under the PART review process. For Congress, according to NAIHC Executive Director Gary Gordon, PART reviews translate to one unsubtle message: “You put the dollars where the dollars are showing success.”

The Office of Management and Budget, a major hand in shaping the federal budget, did not return telephone messages on the subject of NAIHC and PART review. But Rodger Boyd, deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Native American Programs within HUD, doused the council’s concern.

“It wasn’t saying they’re doing a bad job,” Boyd said of the zeroed budget. “They’re doing a good job out there. I think tribes are happy with their work and we’re happy with their work, their technical assistance and home ownership training.”

But the administration, OMB and Boyd are not as happy with NAIHC “carryover” funds going back to fiscal year 2004 – funds the council has been allocated for set fiscal years but hasn’t spent, according to Boyd.

“That’s not accurate,” said Gordon, who has an explanation he’s presented to Boyd.

It didn’t change Boyd’s own explanation of the budgeting process. “What the administration does and what OMB does, basically they take a very, very careful look at carryovers, expenditures, rates of expenditure ... What really did pop up was NAIHC.” At one point, the council’s carryover was close to $7 million, Boyd said. “It has gone down. And so, when the president made his presentation of the budget, it was [$6.5 million].”

As of April 4, the carryover at NAIHC was $5.96 million, Boyd said.

In a tight federal budget, “desperate” for home construction funds, he continued, “Clearly Congress saw this large carryover ... This kind of sticks [out] like a sore thumb.”

Explanations of the carryover may vary, he added. “I think the point is this goes back a few years.”

Gordon said the carryover is justifiable because without it, at its present rate of spending, the council will be tapped out of funds by the end of January 2007. Assuming Congress restores the council’s funding, another four to six months would pass before NAIHC could access allocated funds, with obvious problems for program continuity. He added, though, that the council is trying to pare expenditures without hurting the quality of its services, just in case no further funding comes in by the end of January 2007. He acknowledged that if Congress fails to pass a federal budget by Oct. 1, the beginning of the 2007 fiscal year, the council could benefit from the “continuing resolutions” Congress has passed in such past years, permitting programs to spend at current levels despite the absence of a formal federal budget.

After meetings with congressional members and their staff on Capitol Hill, however, Gordon has hopes Congress will restore some funding to NAIHC, as it did in FY ’06. “They seem to be more receptive ... I think we’ve been encouraged by the responses we’ve been getting.”

No one questions the need for technical assistance in the homeowning, maintenance and creditworthiness process, much less for new housing and the renovation of existing stock on reservations. Recent years have seen improvements in Indian housing, Gordon acknowledged. But as the Indian population has grown, and as people previously discouraged by long waiting lists from applying for tribal housing have seen families get into homes and decided to apply themselves, the need for Indian housing has dwindled only from desperate to severe.

“The need in the first place has been so great ... you’re not going to meet it in eight or 10 years,” Gordon said, referring to the decade or so since the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Assistance Act has been in place, along with its Native American Housing Block Grant program for tribal housing authorities, together empowering tribes to tailor housing programs to fit the needs of their citizenry.

“There have been successes at the tribal level. ... There’s been success out there, but it’s not at the level it could be.”

Congress has to recognize factors such as the cost of timber, Gordon said, which has risen 20 percent in recent years, curtailing the purchasing power of tribal housing construction programs.