Citing a “housing crisis” on the country’s largest American Indian reservation, Navajo and federal leaders are calling for accountability for the tribe’s housing authority, an agency that for decades has been riddled with conflict.
Navajo President Russell Begaye on May 6 signed legislation that removed the entire eight-member board of commissioners for Navajo Housing Authority. The nation’s largest housing authority, Navajo Housing Authority manages more than 8,000 homes, oversees 15 regional offices and employs more than 300 workers.
Established in 1963, Navajo Housing Authority provides low-income housing on a sprawling, isolated reservation the size of West Virginia. But the agency recently has come under fire for not spending federal allocations, alleged “extravagant” spending and, ultimately, failing to build enough homes.
Since 1998, the Navajo Nation has received $1.66 billion for housing, but few homes have been built. Meanwhile, near-complete housing projects are abandoned, people are living in storage units and overcrowded homes, and the Navajo Housing Authority has accumulated a backlog of more than $300 million in unspent federal tax dollars.
“The issue has always been that they’re not spending money, they’re not building homes for people,” Begaye told ICMN. “We get letters from Congress bringing into question NHA’s inability to spend the money, plus its seeming incompetence in building homes.”
The Arizona Republic recently published a series of stories describing nearly two decades of failed projects, mismanagement, fraud and deep-seated financial issues at Navajo Housing Authority. The series shone a spotlight on the struggling housing authority and led to criticism from federal lawmakers.
At stake is hundreds of millions of dollars that could revert to the federal government or become available to other tribes. The Navajo Nation also stands to lose credibility in Washington, Begaye said.
“The Senate is asking questions, HUD is bearing down and other tribes are already lobbying for the money,” he said. “We’re about to lose $22 million to $24 million annually. Congress is saying that if we don’t fix NHA, we may end up losing all the federal monies we get.”
Begaye signed legislation ousting the entire Navajo Housing Authority board to hold the agency accountable, he said. The legislation also calls for a restructuring of the board and a cut from eight members to five.
But as tribal and federal leaders push for reform, the Navajo people continue to endure a housing crisis. According to Navajo Housing Authority figures, the tribe needs as many as 50,000 new homes to meet its current need.
An additional 34,000 existing homes need upgrades or repairs, said Mellor Willie, a legal advisor to the Navajo Housing Authority. One-quarter of all Navajo homes comprise only one room, and one-half of households have no indoor plumbing or kitchen facilities.
Despite the bleak picture, however, this is not a story of homelessness on the Navajo Nation. Rather, this is about “houselessness,” Willie said.
“Navajo culture doesn’t allow families to let loved ones be homeless,” he said. “So often we have four generations living in one house. We always have extra people living in our homes.”
The Navajo Housing Authority readily admits challenges and is working to streamlines processes, said Aneva Yazzie, who took over as CEO in 2007 and immediately launched a five-year forensic review to identify and correct violations stemming from 1998.
Everything came into compliance by 2011, Yazzie said, but the housing authority still faces an uphill battle. It juggles requests from 110 chapters sprawled across portions of three states and encounters layers of red tape before most projects are shovel-ready.
“It can take as long as 10 years to get a house built,” Yazzie said. “Most of that takes place before NHA even gets involved.”
Even when an individual requests low-income housing, it can take years to secure home-site leases, grazing leases, environmental clearances and approval from the BIA, Yazzie said. The Navajo Housing Authority gets involved after the home-site lease is obtained, but planning, design and construction can take another two or three years.
“We’re looking at all kinds of big issues,” she said. “We have challenges with the remoteness, with land availability and non-existing infrastructure. It’s not a matter of simply finding a plot of land and putting up a house. There’s just not enough money allocated by Congress to address all the additional needs.”
Yazzie estimates the Navajo Nation needs $9 billion to address housing demands. The Nation already gets the biggest chunk of federal housing money—at 13 percent of $650 million annually—but it uses half of that to modernize or repair existing homes.
“We’re not getting ahead,” Yazzie said. “We’re just putting on Band-Aids but we’re continually getting cut.”
The Navajo Housing Authority also is tasked with tackling poverty in other ways, Willie said. The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 includes provisions that call for the development of group homes, homeless shelters, halfway housing and domestic violence shelters.
The act also describes myriad other projects that qualify for NAHASDA funding, including small things that improve quality of life or create beauty in impoverished locations. These include rehabilitation of existing homes, as well as community improvements like sidewalks, street lights, recreational areas, sports equipment, playgrounds, youth facilities and educational programs relating to drug abuse.
NHA also can use federal funding to provide housing counseling, with the ultimate goal of moving families from rental properties into home ownership.
“NAHASDA is not just homes, but community building,” Willie said. “A lot of our projects are beyond housing. We do landscaping, beautification, crime prevention, lots of different things that serve the low-income public.”
One such facility is Little Folks Daycare, in Navajo, New Mexico. The brightly colored, 16,000-square-foot building offers daycare services for families living in nearby low-income housing.
The $4.9 million building, funded through NHA, replaced an aging trailer previously used as a daycare center. The new building opened last year after an 11-year process that began with an application for funds.
But the center already is improving lives, said Renee Yazzie, a single mother of five children who relies on the daycare so she can go to work.
“My children are learning to think outside the box,” she said. “I know I wasn’t thinking like that at their age. Long-term, this is going to help the young generation see a better life. Long-term, this gives a lot of hope to children. This is stability.”
President Begaye acknowledged the successful NHA projects on the reservation, but he continues to push for transparency in the agency. As new board members are interviewed and selected, Begaye is demanding that the authority streamline construction processes and use federal funding on new homes.
“I keep telling them they have to build homes for the people who are waiting, for the people who are living in storage units or tents,” he said. “The NHA’s report card will be based on how many houses they build, not how many playgrounds or streetlights go up.”