The largest Indian housing authority in the country is poised to usher in a new era in affordable and versatile housing options on the Navajo Nation.
The Navajo Housing Authority, a public housing agency tasked with building and maintaining affordable homes on the Nation’s 27,000-square-mile reservation, is drafting plans that call for a new approach to building. The Navajo Housing Authority wants to see more construction in existing communities, more new developments and a diversified customer base.
“When we talk about a new vision, really what we’re saying is that there needs to be a paradigm shift for Navajo housing,” said Sean McCabe, a certified public accountant who serves as secretary/treasurer on the authority’s newly overhauled board of commissioners. “We’re in the business of addressing housing needs, but our mantra is outdated. There needs to be a different way of thinking.”
Established in 1963 to serve the needs of the largest land-based tribe in the country, NHA for decades has battled allegations of mismanagement, fraud, construction delays and financial incompetency. The board’s announcement of a “new direction” came after a complete renovation of the housing authority’s internal structure.
Navajo President Russell Begaye in April signed a bill that ousted the entire board of commissioners and called for the resignation of top-level management. The bill, introduced to the Navajo Nation Council in January, sought to address NHA’s chronic inability to meet enormous housing needs yet also accumulating more than $300 million in unspent federal tax dollars.
An internal survey in 2011 revealed that more than 34,000 new homes are needed on the reservation while an additional 34,000 existing homes need renovating or updating. Meanwhile, Navajo citizens live in overcrowded homes or storage units, and hundreds of near-finished homes sit abandoned and vandalized.
As Navajo leaders worked to revamp the authority on the home front, U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, launched his own investigation in conjunction with the Senate Committee on India Affairs. In a statement released with an investigation report June 1, McCain called the authority a “broken public housing agency that is grossly misusing taxpayer funds.”
The “Navajo Nation is facing a housing crisis,” he said. “But the NHA has not delivered on its promise of providing affordable, livable homes for its people.”
McCain’s investigation revealed that the Navajo Housing Authority received $803 million in federal funds during the last 10 years, but built only 1,100 new homes. That’s “far fewer than is needed to address the Navajo Nation's chronic housing shortage,” the report states.
McCain recommended that Congress cap the Navajo Nation’s allocation of federal funds if new home construction remains stagnant. He also recommended replacement of board members with qualified professionals, streamlined construction processes and an increase in site visits from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
By the end of June, the Navajo Nation Council had already confirmed the appointments of three new board members—all with experience in housing development, finance or law. The new board released a letter June 28 announcing plans to restore trust with the Navajo people, as well as “promoting transparency, communication, efficiency and accountability.”
The board, which will include two more members, pledged to address deficiencies within the Navajo Housing Authority, including the “legitimate” concerns about the authority’s “poor record” of building enough homes.
“The bottom line is NHA must and will build new homes,” the letter states. It details five critical factors on which the board plans to focus while reorganizing the agency: land, housing, roads, Internet connectivity and water.
“Lacking any of these areas of infrastructure will hinder our Nation’s ability to bring meaningful jobs, education, economic development and the professionals needed to expand these areas,” the letter states.
“Without safe and reliable housing available, we cannot attract the teachers needed to educate our children,” it states. “Without a quality education, we cannot expect our children to compete for the jobs of the future. Without a workforce prepared to take the jobs of the future, we cannot develop our economy. And most importantly, without safe and reliable homes for our children, adults, and elderly, we fail as leaders to provide our people with the most basic of institutions.”
In their letter, board members also announced that CEO Aneva Yazzie would resign at the end of June after serving for 10 years. On June 30, the board introduced Roberta Roberts as the interim CEO.
Roberts, who previously worked as executive director of the Southern Ute Housing Authority, will serve as acting CEO while the board searches for a permanent leader.
“I know the value of working on behalf of our Navajo people, including communication with our Navajo leadership,” Roberts said in a prepared statement. “I am ready to serve the people and leadership during this important transition.”
But not everything is in flux, McCabe said. Much of the agency, which manages more than 8,000 homes, oversees 15 regional offices and employs more than 300 workers, will stay intact.
“There’s a pretty good foundation here at NHA,” he said. “Of course it’s not perfect and we’re determined and committed to fix the issues, but we’re also here to build on the core foundation. We’re going to usher in a new vision, work on priorities, get houses built.”
During a July 7 conference call with ICMN, all three board members discussed their vision for the future. In recent years, the Navajo Housing Authority has focused on community-building projects like daycare and youth centers, and the modernization of existing homes.
Although the new board wants its highest priority to be on constructing houses, it also wants to rethink the way the agency plans new housing developments and builds partnerships on the local level. Board Vice President Derrith Watchman, who holds an MBA and previously worked with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency, said she wants to see a more balanced approach to housing.
“It used to be that you build homes and people come and live in them,” she said. “The challenge now is that we build homes and some of them sit empty. Our master planning over the years has been hit or miss, and we need to change that by communicating with everyone involved.”
The board also wants to diversify its customer base, said Kris Beecher, who serves as board president. That means the Navajo Housing Authority may move away from simply providing low-income homes for rent or ownership and expand to include housing developments for industry leaders and professionals.
“Our new vision incorporates HUD housing, but also mid-level housing and professional housing,” Beecher said. “As a board, we don’t want the goal to be one level of housing when there’s a spectrum of housing needed. In order to foster economic development on the Navajo Nation, we need the housing to accommodate all people and all incomes.”
The new direction may signal the biggest changes in the housing authority’s 54-year history. To McCabe, the transformation simply reflects an effort to modernize housing and stimulate the economy.
“This is the modern way of doing business,” he said. “Everything around us is advancing quickly and if we can introduce a new way of thinking about housing, we really can help bring top-quality professionals to the reservation and accommodate so much more diversity.”