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Native American housing act waits for president's signature

WASHINGTON - A re-authorized and revitalized Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) awaits President George W. Bush's signature after Congress approved it shortly before the election recess.

The President is expected to sign the bill in the next couple of weeks. It contains important new amendments acknowledging American Indian and Alaska Native sovereignty. Both houses of Congress passed the bill unanimously.

In a clear victory for tribal sovereignty, the re-authorized NAHASDA mandates negotiated rulemaking on any further amendments.

Tribal housing leaders and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers NAHASDA, have been at odds for several years on the consultation issue. Negotiated rulemaking was employed at the very beginning of NAHASDA final rule implementation but not thereafter. The original law passed in 1996.

HUD will still be able to make changes to the regulations implementing the law without negotiated rulemaking, according to Kristy L. McCarthy, executive director of the Coalition for Indian Housing and Development here.

McCarthy credited Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, as well as Representatives J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., and Dale Kildee, D-Mich., with shepherding the bill on its long, two-year passage through Congress and making it bi-partisan enough to avoid being scuttled.

"We're very happy with the bill," she said, noting how difficult it has been to get any legislation through.

The House passed the bill by unanimous consent just minutes before adjourning for the election recess, bringing to mind the original bill's passage under similar circumstances in 1996.

Russell Sossamon, chairman of CIHD and its sister group, the National American Indian Housing Council, said the housing groups' focus would now be on increasing appropriations for Indian housing under the bill.

Tribal NAHASDA housing block grants have been stalled at about $650 million for the past several years. The bill authorizes extending the block grants, technical assistance, and loan guarantee programs (HUD 184 and Title VI) of NAHASDA through 2007, but does not specify amounts for funding them.

Other amendments in the reauthorized bill include one that changes requirements in the use of program money in a way that supports tribal sovereignty, according to CIHD.

McCarthy said tribes no longer will have to spend all income generated by NAHASDA activities (such as rent) before being allowed access to the next year's grant money.

Another amendment streamlines and expands the Title VI program, an important leveraging tool that allows Indian housing authorities or their designated housing entities (TDHEs) to obtain loans of up to five times the "additional need" portion of their NAHASDA grants, 95 percent guaranteed by the federal government. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma recently has used Title VI to get a $50 million loan to develop housing in its sovereign area.

As amended, Title VI may now be used to fund community development activities, as well as housing and infrastructure.

Another amendment authorizes a study on the effect and extent of black mold in tribal housing.

The leveraging of private dollars produced by NAHASDA provisions has driven a huge increase in housing production on reservations in recent years. Estimates range up to 25,000 units over five years, which is about double historical levels.