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Reauthorized housing bill comes with advantages, some defeats

WASHINGTON – National American Indian Housing Council Executive Director Paul Lumley was feeling especially good at the close of business Oct. 14. Confirmed word had just reached him that President George W. Bush had signed into law a bill to amend and reauthorize the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act.

“We worked so hard on it, actually even before I showed up here.”

The news release that soon followed gave credit to a cast of lawmakers that included Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich.; Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. It ended with an homage to the “broad coalition of tribal leaders nationally and the many tribal housing partners” that put the bill over the top. It was the only pan-tribal bill of national scope to pass Congress on its own (that is, not as an amendment) in the 110th Congress.

“I’m disappointed that more bills didn’t pass,” Lumley said. “But we should take time to be thankful for the ones that did pass.”

The reauthorization and amendments provide tribes with more flexibility for self-determined program spending and cut back on red tape by including tribal housing programs in the $5,000 procurement rule, common elsewhere in the federal government – tribal housing programs will no longer have to activate a bidding process on contracts worth less than the $5,000 threshold.

In addition, Lumley said, the bill extends a federal guarantee for bonds issued by up to four tribally designated housing entities in each region of the Housing and Urban Development department’s Office of Native American Programs. The federal guarantee is available not only on the financing (the “notes and obligations” in the language of the law) of housing construction, but also now on the financing of “tribal community and economic development activities.”

Chris Boesen, a Washington-based political and financial consultant who helped develop the loan-guarantee amendment through Tiber Creek Associates of Capitol Hill, described it as a creative approach to economic development and infrastructure investment in Indian country.

“The basic reasoning behind this provision is that non-Native communities have access to the HUD Section 108 loan guarantee program, which allows cities to borrow or issue bonded debt for up to five times their annual CDBG [Community Development Block Grant] allocation for CDBG-eligible purposes. This was the programmatic model for the NAHASDA Title VI program, though for low-income housing purposes only.”

The program isn’t a solution for every tribe’s infrastructure needs, but then there is no one such solution, Boesen added.

“Congress just isn’t appropriating enough money to rely solely on traditional sources of funding for infrastructure improvements and economic development in Indian country. Tribes need to get creative and look for other solutions, and for some tribes this could be a piece of that puzzle.”

The current credit market is bound to be a concern, Boesen acknowledged. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to go to the financial market today without credit enhancement. But with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government behind you, there is money available and under some pretty good terms.”

Amending Title VI of NAHASDA had great help in the House of Representatives from Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and his staff, Boesen said, as well as from Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M.

On the other hand, opposition in the Senate from the Senate Republican Steering Committee reduced the loan guarantee program to a demonstration project, Boesen said, available to only four tribes in each of HUD’s ONAP regions.

In the House, Lumley said, the Republican Study Committee also reduced the overall bill by opposing reauthorization of a Native Hawaiian housing program. “That hurt, personally,” said Lumley, who has a connection with Native Hawaiians through his previous tenure with the Department of Defense. “In the end, we didn’t have the support” to sustain the Native Hawaiian provisions, he said.

But NAIHC hopes to help craft a joint strategy with Native Hawaiians for getting their housing programs funded, he said. Reauthorization is critical to appropriations, he said, because programs that haven’t been reauthorized are more likely to get the attention of congressional budget-trimmers in hard times. “We don’t want that.”

Another thorny issue for the bill came from the Congressional Black Caucus, which threatened to cancel housing funds for Indian country at first and then for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, because of a Cherokee vote to disenroll its freedmen citizens, descendants of free blacks and slaves among the Cherokee in the 19th century.

Lumley said NAIHC did not work with the caucus as a body, but with individual members who showed a distinct “level of respect” for the government-to-government relationship between tribes and Washington. A last-minute solution allowed the reauthorization bill to proceed pending a court resolution of the freedmen issue. He said a caucus member, Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., was instrumental to crafting the compromise.

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