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Navajo Nation In Jeopardy of Losing Unspent Housing Money

The Navajo Nation is sounding the alarm about federal legislation that could cost the tribe $81 million this year in funds for housing projects.
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The Navajo Nation is sounding the alarm about federal legislation that could cost the tribe $81 million this year in funds for housing projects, if Congress approves it as written.

Congressman Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) introduced H.R. 360, the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act of 2015, on January 14, after previous versions of the bill failed to make it to the Senate floor. The Navajo Nation Council passed a resolution in early February declaring an emergency over the potential loss of housing funds that the bill proposes.

“Pearce’s bill for the most part is very good and the Navajo Nation supports it, said Carolyn Drouin, attorney for the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President. But she says there is one section that is “troublesome for the Nation:” Section 302, which seeks to rein in funds carried over year to year when they’re not spent. The current version of H.R. 360 specifies that carry-over funds for each tribe will be limited to three times that tribe’s yearly funding allocation. Under the provision, the Navajo Housing Authority would lose $81 million in housing funds this year alone, which would then be redistributed to other tribes, said the Navajo Housing Authority’s CEO, Aneva Yazzie.

The Navajo resolution acknowledges that the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA) has done much to address housing needs in Indian country, by eliminating red tape to allow for housing development on tribal lands, and establishing the Indian Housing Block Grant as a source of funds for housing and housing-related infrastructure in Indian and Alaska Native communities. Since its passage, more than 110,000 homes have been built across Indian country and tens of thousands of Native people have received home loans, rental assistance, and financial literacy training, among other benefits, according to the resolution.

The Navajo Nation has been aware of the need to reduce carry-over funds, but it was hamstrung for years by the Bennett Freeze, a federal moratorium on building in one of the parts of the reservation most in need of infrastructure and homes. President Barack Obama lifted the decades-long freeze in 2009, but it took time for the Nation to forge ahead with building plans – partly because once it started, it was stymied by lawsuits by grassroots groups over how to proceed. Finally, in 2011, the Navajo Housing Authority made a reservation-wide needs assessment that identified a need for 50,445 homes. In 2012, it enacted a five-year plan to bring down the balance of its unspent Indian Housing Block Grant funds. In the first two years, the Nation has spent $288 million to build 580 new housing units, modernize 964 older units, develop 16 group homes and acquire three housing units for people with disabilities.

RELATED: Bennett Freeze Residents: Politicians Want to Wash Their Hands of Problems

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“The Navajo Nation has needs all across the Nation,” said Navajo Nation House Speaker LoRenzo Bates. “We have an unemployment rate in excess of 60 percent. We lack infrastructure. When you lack infrastructure, the housing needs and the economic development needs of the Nation cannot move forward. Those are the beginning steps to move in the direction of solving some of the social ills of the Navajo Nation.”

In its February 11 resolution, the Navajo Nation Council also noted that the Nation is not a member of the Native American Indian Housing Council and the National Congress of American Indians, both of which have publicly expressed their support for the NAHASDA bill.

“The Navajo Nation is not a part of the NCAI organization, but Congress often goes to them for a view on Native American matters,” said Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie, who represents the chapters of Baca/Prewitt, Casamero Lake, Counselor, Littlewater, Ojo Encino, Pueblo Pintado, Torreon and Whitehorse Lake. “In this case, they have a conflict of interest because they stand to gain from their opposition to the Navajo Nation” when the Nation’s funds are distributed among other tribes, he said.

Although NCAI spokeswoman Sarah Beccio, Pueblo of Isleta, declined to comment on the Navajo position specifically, she confirmed NCAI’s support of the bill. The NCAI urged “swift passage of legislation” in a resolution predating last year’s failed Congressional efforts to do so. And in a report to the NCAI 2015 Executive Council Winter Session, NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Pata, Tlingit, said the NAHASDA reauthorization is a major focus for the organization this year. “Our resolutions don’t support or oppose any specific bill,” she added. “[O]ur efforts go towards reauthorization of NAHASDA so housing authorities can have the certainty they need in meeting the housing needs of members.”

Press officials on Congressman Pearce's staff declined to answer questions about the Navajo concerns for this story.

Drouin, the Navajo Nation attorney, said the solution for maintaining the Nation’s ongoing housing efforts is simple: let the Navajo Nation finish out its five-year spend-down plan.

“What the Nation is asking is basically for Congress to take that section, Section 302, and change the effective date from 2015 to 2018,” she said.