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Native Home Ownership Bill Passes Congress Committee

WASHINGTON – A bill meant to make home ownership easier for Indians cleared another hurdle on November 17 when the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs passed the “Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership Act of 2011,” or the HEARTH Act (H.R. 205).

The legislation was designed with assistance from tribal leaders in an effort to amend the Indian Long-Term Leasing Act of 1955 (25 U.S.C. § 415). The new legislation would reform federal leasing requirements and encourage housing and community development in American Indian communities. It would allow tribes to enter into certain leases without prior expressed approval of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In sum, the legislation is expected to expedite the lease approval process by allowing tribal governments to approve trust land leases directly.

Specifically, the legislation directs the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to prepare and submit to Congress a report detailing the history and experience of Indian tribes that have chosen to assume responsibility for administering the Indian Land Title and Records Office (LTRO) functions from the BIA.

"H.R. 205, the HEARTH Act of 2011 will go a long way in strengthening tribal self-determination and tribal economies at the same time,” said National American Indian Housing Council Chairwoman Cheryl A. Causley in a statement. “We know the time frame for individual tribal members to receive a home-site lease is arduous and can be as long as three years under the current Bureau of Indian Affairs process, but we anticipate that these improvements in leasing and enhanced tribal control over surface leasing will help more tribal members get into homes quick."

"The NAIHC strongly supports H.R. 205 because it respects and fosters Indian tribal decision-making, expedites what can often be lengthy federal administrative processes, and will improve the delivery of Federal housing assistance and expand economic opportunity in tribal communities.”

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In April, Causley testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to support companion legislation, S.703. She said then that the bill “respects and fosters Indian tribal decision-making, expedites what can often be lengthy federal administrative processes and will improve the delivery of federal housing assistance and expand economic opportunity in tribal communities.”

The HEARTH Act was first introduced in 2009 in the House by Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and in the Senate by former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. According to NAIHC, the bill was modified to include provisions related to tribal environmental review that were negotiated by the SCIA leadership, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Solicitor's Office, Heinrich and the NAIHC.

Heinrich introduced the current House version of the bill in January. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., introduced S.703 in March. The companion legislation passed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in July.

Heinrich has advocated for its passage because he says it will allow tribes to exercise greater control over their lands and eliminate bureaucratic delays that stand in the way of homeownership in tribal communities.

"We all know how important homeownership is to healthy communities, and the last thing the federal government should do is stand in the way of families ready and willing to buy a house," Heinrich said in a statement. "There are many families who would prefer to stay and raise their children in the communities where their families have lived for generations—but instead have moved from Indian country to nearby cities because they want to own a home. Families shouldn't be forced to make such an important decision based on how many months or years it will take a federal bureaucracy to approve a mortgage on tribal land."

"NAIHC is thankful to the members of the subcommittee for recognizing that many Indian families will benefit from this legislation," Causley said. "I also extend sincere gratitude to Rep. Heinrich and all the co-sponsors, and the support from the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs and their respective staff."

The bill passed the subcommittee by unanimous consent. It now goes to the full House of Representatives for consideration.