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Indian housing facing political pressure

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WASHINGTON - There was good and bad news about housing that came from the recent legislative conference of the National American Indian Housing Council.

The good news is that 2002 saw a big bounce for a couple of the programs intended to extend homeownership to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.

The bad news? More than $1 billion worth of federal guarantees to encourage lenders to make these loans remains unused. And, tribes face the potentially big political problem of having to account for hundreds of millions of dollars that the federal government thinks remains unspent.

Michael Liu, assistant secretary for public and Indian housing at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told the meeting that Congress will not look kindly on reports that 40-45 percent of housing assistance granted to tribes in recent years remains unspent.

He said that the Office of Management and Budget has become much more results oriented. "To justify the levels of spending they have to have a better handle on what's been done with the funding."

Liu said he had directed Rodger Boyd, head of HUD's Office of Native American Programs (ONAP) to collect the information. And while he acknowledged ONAP does not have a sophisticated tracking system, he said "that's no excuse."

Liu said accounting for the money is "not an impossible task, but we are being watched extremely closely."

And Paul Moorehead, majority staff director of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, flatly told tribes they have a political problem with reports that the $900 million allocated has not been spent, especially as tribes are lobbying HUD and Congress for more housing money.

NAIHC officials at the meeting said the estimates of unspent money are vastly exaggerated, pointing to bad reporting systems at HUD and to the fact that they must put in months and years of work on a housing project before the money can be obtained from HUD. Thus, much of the outstanding money is for projects in the works but not yet finished enough to be able to draw money from HUD.

NAIHC did get funding backing from Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who noted that federal housing assistance to tribes has been flatlined for four years, at about $650 million a year. (NAIHC thinks this should rise to $1 billion a year over the next several years.) He denounced the Bush Administration for its "shameful priority" given to tax cuts benefiting the wealthiest citizens.

In more good news, Walt Patton, who directs Fannie Mae's rural and Native American program, told Indian Country Today the agency's 2002 Native volume was $217 million, well more than twice the 2001 volume of $81 million.

Fannie's "investment" volume includes single-family mortgages, buying equity in housing projects through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, and buying federal Title VI loans, such as the $50 million loan made to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma last year.

Paul Jurkowski, who directs the loan guarantee programs of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told ICT that HUD section 184 guaranteed Indian mortgage loans doubled last fiscal year, to $19 million through 184 loans. He expects about 300 loans and $30 million done through the program in fiscal year 2003. And the $50 million Cherokee loan was several times the volume of Title VI since inception.

An official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Housing Service told ICT RHS direct and guaranteed housing volume remained steady last year, at about $170 million.

The meeting heard, though, that the section 184 and Title VI programs, though accelerating nicely, remain underused by lenders, with more than $1 billion of unused guarantee authority, resulting in cuts of several million dollars being made in the amounts needed to fund the guarantees.

Liu noted that while the moribund Federal Housing Association section 248 mortgage, the predecessor to the HUD 184, remained quiescent, a variation of the loan remains useful. It's called the FHA 247 and has been used quite successfully in Hawaii, for Native lending, according to Liu.

Liu also pledged to work with Federal Housing Commissioner John Weicher to get the FHA 247 program moving forward. "Let's not just cast aside another potential tool that might work," he said.

Liu also told the meeting about four positives he said have occurred in Indian housing over the past year or so:

oTribes can now establish their own wage rates on housing projects.

oA proscription of volunteers from self-help housing builds has been fixed.

oCooperation agreements can be waived for good cause (this happens when a neighboring jurisdiction does not cooperate, for whatever reason, on Indian housing).

oA vacant position to head ONAP's Alaska office has now been filled.