Housing leaders seek more funds, autonomy

WASHINGTON - The National American Indian Housing Council (NAIHC) would like to see the federal government provide Indian housing with more funding and more autonomy, befitting tribes' status as sovereign nations.

And, in positions outlined at NAIHC's recent legislative conference and a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians the week before, NAIHC's requests were met by a federal acknowledgement of sovereignty - but also a cut in funding.

NAIHC, in position papers revealed at its conference and also in testimony by Chairman Russell Sossamon, Choctaw, before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, is asking for an immediate boost in Indian housing block grants to $700 million (up from about $650 million), and a rise to $1 billion over the next several years.

The group would also like to see funding restored to the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs' Rural Housing and Economic Development program, set to be scrapped by the Bush Administration for the second year in a row (last year Congress subsequently re-funded the $25 million program, which has made up to half of its grants in Indian country).

And, Governmental Affairs Director Kristy L. McCarthy told NAIHC's legislative session, the group is stumping for more housing improvement money for the BIA, funding for the successful housing drug elimination program, another target of administration knives, and the ability to establish fair market ceilings for Indian rental units.

HUD Secretary Mel Martinez canceled a scheduled appearance at the NAIHC conference, but did appear at the NCAI meeting the week before.

He told NCAI "this administration is deeply committed to honoring the principle of government-to-government relations with Indian tribes. We support tribal sovereignty and self determination."

But he brought bad news as well - a cut of $8 million in the Administration's fiscal 2004 proposal for Indian housing, from 2003's total for all programs of $746.7 million, to $738.7 million for 2004.

The cuts, Martinez said, come in the amounts necessary to provide guarantees for the HUD 184 mortgage program for individual Indians and the Title VI program for larger projects. HUD 184 has over $1 billion in unused authority, and Title VI some $200 million, he told NCAI.

He said HUD is supporting sovereignty through a negotiated rulemaking process on the funding formulas used to determine how much each tribe gets in housing assistance.

NAIHC is asking, however, that negotiated rulemaking (where tribes have input into the language of rules) be expanded to include all changes, said McCarthy.

She said NAIHC would like to see an increase, to $140 million a year, in Indian Community Development Block Grant money (used to support housing and related infrastructure and economic development). That would be about double the current level of $71 million.

The BIA's Home Improvement Program has been flatlined at about $20 million for many years, McCarthy noted, and she said funding for it should rise to at least $35 million per year. Last year, the program had just $22.9 million against $300 million in requests for projects to be funded.

NAIHC is also requesting an increase, to $280 million, in the Indian Health Services budget for sanitation facilities construction, which it says is an essential program to provide water and sewer hookups for Indian housing.

The group would also like to see jettisoned rules that say that money can't be used to assist HUD-funded homes. Since many projects now are built with other funding sources as well, a pro-rated approach is currently in use.

NAIHC also is asking that tribes be given tax exempt bond parity with other forms of government, a recognition of sovereignty that would help them access the capital markets better for housing funding (currently they are limited to "private activity" bonds).

Another self-determination provision it is stumping for is the ability for tribes or their housing entities to be able to set fair market prices on rental housing, instead of the 30 percent of income ceiling they must use today. "The requirement is costly, time consuming, grossly complex, often corrupting of staff and tenants, and most importantly, adverse to tribal self-determination," the group said. "Doing away with the 30 percent will also free up tens of millions of dollars of unnecessary administrative costs and these savings can then be used as additional money for addressing housing needs."

Another sovereignty measure involves the negotiated rulemaking process. HUD used negotiated rulemaking on the initial implementation of the 1996 Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act, but then stopped this formal tribal consultation process. More recent legislation mandated it resume negotiated rulemaking, but only for new amendments to NAHASDA. NAIHC would like to see this expanded to any change in the NAHASDA rules.

The group is also advocating for money to fix a spreading plague of black mold in Indian housing, a problem it says could cost $20 million to fix on the Turtle Mountain reservation alone. It noted that tribes have been using NAHASDA money to try t make fixes, but said NAHASDA was not designed for disaster relief and that black mold remediation should have its own funding.

McCarthy said that senators Tom Daschle and Kent Conrad both support the need to do something about the black mold problem.