Her new job as executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council is a return to the familiar for Pamala Silas, who started her career as a housing specialist in Chicago.
“Housing was where I kind of cut my teeth,” Silas said during an interview at the annual conference of the Native American Journalists Association in Alexandria, Virginia. Before moving to NAIHC, she was the executive director of NAJA, and before that was ED at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).
Silas, Menominee/Oneida, began her career as housing director at the American Indian Economic Development Association of Chicago, and then later at the Metropolitan Tenants Organization in Chicago, where she worked for seven years helping to dismantle public housing.
“Coming to NAIHC is a natural transition for me,” she said. “There’s a need for capacity building. I’m good at it. Strong leadership is needed.”
The biggest things on the new director’s plate are reauthorization of the landmark Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA) housing act and more money to assist NAIHC’s more than 400 Indian housing entities. That’s more than 85 percent of all Indian housing entities in the country, she said.
Shawn Pensoneau, Kickapoo, director of governmental affairs for NAIHC, noted that the reauthorization of NAHASDA has passed the House of Representatives and now is before the Senate.
“I feel good about it,” he said of its chances for passing. “There’s a lot of momentum from the last session.” NAHASDA is a landmark bill, as noted by the “Self Determination” in its name. Enacted in 1996, the law gave control of federal housing assistance to tribes. It has had to be reauthorized several times, and this one has been unusually slow due to Congressional gridlock.
“We feel confident NAHASDA will pass this Congress,” he said. He urged tribal leaders to stay in touch with their representatives and talk about how important NAHASDA is to their tribes.
This reauthorization contains a couple of new updates, Pensoneau said. One is to streamline the environmental review process, allowing tribes to make their own review processes in the spirit of self-determination. Another is to relax the 30 percent of income maximum tribes are allowed to charge members for housing. “We should allow tribes to make those judgments,” he said.
Pensoneau also said that the NAHASDA housing grant money, which is parceled out to tribes by a formula, has been steady at $650 million for the past five years. “We want to get an increase,” he said, but acknowledged “it’s a challenge.”
There was some tentative good news on that front as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro told the NAJA meeting that HUD, which administers NAHASDA, is asking for an additional $25 million in housing money for the next budget, including $10 million more for NAHASDA. (The other main housing program is the Indian Community Development Block Grant, or I-CDBG.)
Castro said HUD is also asking Congress for $10 million to fund housing for teachers at Indian schools. And he is asking $4 million to relieve homelessness among Native veterans, saying the amount would help 650 Native vets escape homelessness.
Finally, he is asking for $15 million for a “Jobs Plus” program to expand job opportunities in tribal areas.
Castro told the meeting he was troubled by the overcrowding he observed in recent site visits to reservations, including Turtle Mountain and Pine Ridge, with up to 12 people living in a four bedroom home.
NAHASDA “needs to be reauthorized,” he told the meeting, noting that President Obama “has made it a strong priority.”