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Legislative review

Housing assistance act in transition

WASHINGTON - As Congress got out of town just ahead of record-setting hot weather in Washington and northern Virginia, the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act seemed to be surviving the congressional heat that can attend a legislative reauthorization process.

NAHASDA became law in 1996, refining small housing grant programs and other housing benefits into the large Indian Housing Block Grants that have permitted tribes and tribally designated housing authorities to approach often crisis housing conditions with unprecedented flexibility. Through a series of amendments since, a thematic evolution has emerged in Indian housing, according to Paul Moorehead, a lawyer and lobbyist in the Indian practice group of the firm Drinker, Biddle and Reath in Washington. ''The ... thematic evolution of the act over this period ... sought to emphasize not only housing but housing-related community and economic development.'' Another theme has been to provide tribes and tribally designated housing authorities with more authority, in part with a view toward a potential Alaska Native demonstration project that would put a portion of NAHASDA into the tribal self-governance statute, Public Law 93-638.

These themes were on display at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on Indian housing in July.

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So was a determination in Congress to respond to tribal experience in administering NAHASDA. For example, from peak funding of $650 million in fiscal year 2003, IHBG funding has slipped back to within a million dollars or two of its first-year budget, $625 million. The early peak funding helped tribes respond to a crisis, but the decline since has been a subject of substantial complaint as the cost of housing materials has gone up and need has remained high.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., has responded with a broad expansion of housing-related loan guarantee programs for tribes and tribally designated housing entities. Pearce's initiatives have received solid backing from Democrats in the House and are poised to become part of a final NAHASDA reauthorization bill, once it is ready for the president's signature. His contribution to a bill pushed hard by Democrats in the House, among them Reps. Barney Frank, Dale Kildee and Maxine Waters, as well as Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in the Senate, would represent the bipartisan approach shown by Congress toward Indian and Alaska Native housing under NAHASDA.

Although details of the bills in the House and Senate will have to be worked out, and working them out will not signal that all is well with Indian housing, the prognosis for giving NAHASDA a good and thorough reauthorization before it expires is considered by several Capitol Hill observers to be excellent.