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NAHEA to amend Housing Act

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Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., is introducing the Native American Housing Enhancement Act of 2003 (NAHEA), which will amend the landmark Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA) to prevent tribal housing grant reductions and ensure that no one in Indian housing pays more than fair market rents.

NAHEA is the second of two related bills intended to benefit American Indians and Alaska Natives introduced by Sen. Johnson. The second, the Tribal Economic Enhancement Act, was introduced in July to assist tribal economic development.

According to the bill, which has yet to receive an identifying number, action is necessary because "Native Americans experience some of the worst housing conditions in the country."

It says 32.6 percent of Native homes are overcrowded, 33 percent lack adequate sewage systems, 8 percent do not have water, and "approximately 90,000 Native families are homeless or underhoused."

The bill also points out that Indians suffer from a poverty rate double that of the rest of the country, and have a rapidly growing populations that requires more housing.

Specifically, the bill would "eliminate the mandatory rental and payment ceiling of 30 percent of adjusted income for the low-income participants and replace the ceiling with a fair market rent ceiling as a workable and simple method to ensure that participants in the assisted program under the Act do not pay more for housing than the fair market rate."

Eliminating the bureaucracy needed to implement this requirement will free up additional housing resources, the framers of the legislation believe.

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Another provision of the bill would allow tribes or their tribally designated housing entities (TDHE) to establish reserve accounts. The bill also would allow them to retain grant money from one year to the next.

This provision would address the politically-charged tendency of Indian housing money to remain unused despite great housing need. Critics contend this points to inefficiency on the part of TDHE; TDHE claim it is the byproduct of a bureaucratic funding process.

The bill would also reconcile NAHASDA assistance, which comes through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, with housing money provided through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Housing Service.

At issue is the "Indian preference" clause in NAHASDA, which clashes with USDA requirements that housing assistance not violate the civil rights of anyone eligible (preference being potentially discriminatory). The amendment would allow NAHASDA money to be mixed with USDA funding.

NAHEA also would amend the Cranston-Gonzalez National Affordable Housing Act to give tribes and TDHE eligibility for Youthbuild grants.

Sen. Johnson, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he had consulted with tribal housing authorities in South Dakota and elsewhere in coming up with the legislation. He called it "relatively non-controversial" and was sanguine about its passage.

He commented "we must give housing authorities more flexibility in their ability to manage their housing needs and greater access to program funding."

Russell Sossamon, chairman of the Choctaw Housing Authority and also chair of the National American Indian Housing Council, said the many "tweaks" contained in NAHEA add up to something significant.

Sen. Johnson this year also has put forward legislation to help increase Native participation in Small Business Administration funding. This would help Natives develop private business plans and private financing.