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‘Rebirth of a Nation’: Navajo Bluestone Housing Project

Housing on the Navajo Nation is about to get a major upgrade, thanks in part to an energetic partnership.
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Housing on the Navajo Nation is about to get a major upgrade, thanks in part to an energetic partnership between tribal housing officials and a former Frank Lloyd Wright protégé.

The Bluestone Project, set to break ground this summer and begin housing people by next year, is the culmination of years of research and planning – with input from thousands of years of indigenous knowledge. And yet, it’s only the beginning of what organizers hope to accomplish in addressing the Navajo Nation’s housing shortfalls.

Bluestone will be located on 80 acres near Houck, Arizona, which lies along Interstate 40 near the Arizona-New Mexico border. Its 200 new units will include apartment complexes, group homes, special housing for seniors and veterans, and single-family dwellings for sale or rent. It will also include park and play areas, trails and paths, a community center, and businesses.

“This will be a full community,” said Aneva Yazzie, CEO of the Navajo Housing Authority. “It will be modern, yet Navajo.” Yazzie added that as the Authority’s first master-planned community, Bluestone will serve as a model for sustainable developments across the Navajo Nation. “We want to showcase what can be accomplished in all our chapter communities,” she said.

Shortly after taking the helm at the Housing Authority in 2007, Yazzie oversaw a comprehensive Housing Needs Assessment, which was completed in 2011. The study revealed a need for 34,100 new homes and major repairs on 34,300 existing homes.

At the same time, the Housing Authority partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make reservation-wide aerial surveys and map the floodplains.

Tim LaCroix, left, and Gene Barfield after their marriage was approved. Photo courtesy Annette VanDeCar, Communications Coordinator LTBB.

“We didn’t have any land information, to show whether areas were developable,” Yazzie said. “There were no FEMA flood maps. NHA was in the past doing site-by-site analysis.”

With that information in hand, it was time to find a master planner. Although proposals came in from 45 firms across the country, the Housing Authority ended up having to look no farther than Scottsdale, Arizona-based Swaback Partners.

“It turns out that Vernon Swaback was a protégé for Frank Lloyd Wright,” Yazzie said, referring to the firm’s managing partner. “He grew up learning about sustainability way back when. He was already in love with Navajos’ way of beauty. He really has this vision knowing that indigenous people always had this concept of sustainability. This was a really perfect relationship.”

Swaback developed a sustainable community master plan across the Navajo Nation’s 110 chapters, with each chapter receiving its own master plan in early 2013.

Most of the Navajo Nation’s land is in trust, so getting the green light to build on it is a slow process. Many chapters are in various phases of that process now. Still, there are three developments in the pipeline behind Bluestone. The first is a 300 to 350-unit apartment complex at Twin Arrows, to be incorporated into existing casino and associated business infrastructure along Interstate 40, about 125 miles west of Bluestone. Another mixed-use development is planned for the Sanders area, along the Interstate about nine miles west of Bluestone. A fourth master-planned development is slated to go in Yah-ta-hey, New Mexico, north of Gallup.

The land for Bluestone itself was gifted to the Navajo Housing Authority years ago, so the trust land issues haven’t slowed it down. Last spring, the Housing Authority awarded a contract to Kitchell, a development firm with offices across the United States and in Canada. By summer, Kitchell was selecting consultants and conducting engineering and design studies. By now, the developers have settled on a water supply – an alluvial well adjacent to the site – and are completing environmental reviews.

Brain Drain

The Housing Authority is also seeking financing for the portions of the development that won’t be funded through the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA). Although a majority of the housing will be for low-income residents, about 25 percent will be for non-low-income applicants, including professional individuals and families.

“There is a huge brain drain effect on Navajo,” said Mellor Willie, the Navajo Housing Authority’s Washington D.C. political advisor. “Even for middle and higher income families, there’s no housing.”

That reality once created a few months of rough living for Carolyn Drouin, ?attorney for the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President.

Back in 2008, Drouin had graduated from law school, passed the Bar exam, and arrived to the Navajo Nation to start work at a branch office of DNA People’s Legal Services in Chinle. After her anticipated housing fell through due to a broken water pump, her employers put her up in a local hotel for an extra week while they unsuccessfully tried to find housing for her.

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“When I arrived in Chinle, my supervisor offered for me to stay in the one room, single wide mobile home our employer owned, which she occupied,” Drouin recalls. “I crashed at her place from August until November, when I met a nurse living in staff housing up at the local hospital. She happened to have an extra room that she let me move into.”

Eventually, Drouin was promoted to managing attorney of the Crownpoint DNA office, where she made do with a room in an on-site doublewide trailer and – for several months – cold showers in a 16-foot travel trailer parked nearby.

Creative funding solutions

The Housing Authority’s Yazzie is excited that Bluestone will address the range of the Navajo Nation’s housing needs.

“This is a mixed use, mixed finance and mixed income development,” she said. In addition, some homes will be rented and others will be purchased. While funds from the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act of 1996 will cover the low-income needs, the rest will require complex and creative funding. Yazzie is ready.

She points out that Housing and Urban Development also supports leveraged financing, and she has had success in her past work with tax-exempt bond financing. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers loan programs that are applicable for rural America.

“The Navajo Nation is very rural, and very remote,” she points out. “That is a good fit for us.”

For people who will purchase their homes, the Housing Authority will offer credit counseling and a range of home ownership options.

Capitalizing on ‘Navajo-ness’

For anyone but Vernon Swaback , the question that arrived from the Housing Authority in 2011 – where do you put 3,400 houses – would have seemed daunting. But Swaback’s whole career has been preparing him for the task. He started his apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright when he was just 17, having completed his first year of college. Since that time he’s worked to develop enormous communities across the country. He’s also written books about sustainable development and the building of community.

So when he first saw the Housing Authority call for proposals, “it seemed to us that this was not only something we would be honored to be involved in. We saw in it a greater task, which was: How do you rebuild a nation?”

In developing the master plan for the Navajo Nation, Swaback and his staff hosted more than 150 meetings, including at least one at each of the 110 chapters houses across the reservation. They also garnered extensive input from Navajo students attending the nearby Arizona State University. At the chapter houses, he experienced elders who, reserved at first, opened up about their housing dreams. As for the students, he said, they want to get an education and go back home. However, “it’s very clear that there is nothing for them to go back to unless they are part of the rebirth of their Nation.”

Now that the master planning is done, Swaback’s firm has entered an oversight role; he and his colleagues attend every meeting related to Bluestone and the projects behind it, and they make sure that the ongoing work stays true to the vision. They call it “Sustainable Journey of Beauty,” and sometimes “Rebirth of a Nation.”

Yazzie said the developments include ample design that comes from Navajo culture. “We’ve always incorporated green development, energy efficiency. We’ve used the earth, dirt, and logs. These natural elements really provide a lot of energy conservation.”

Bluestone and the other master-planned communities will incorporate features from traditional Navajo hogans. For example, the homes will face east, both to gather the warmth of the morning sun and to allow for traditional morning prayers in the direction of the rising sun.

Even as developers prepare the sites, they will do so with a traditional land ethic in mind, she said.

“We’re not bulldozing areas; we’re retaining natural vegetation, including catchbasins for creating community gardens,” she said. “Common areas will flow from the design of a Navajo basket. These are all ways we will include Navajo-ness with respect to design and layout.”

Yazzie said her ultimate goal is two-fold: helping the Navajo Nation return to a simple, healthier life – and finally addressing the reservation’s housing crisis for good.

“I truly believe that if we effectively plan the efficient and sustainable use of our land,” she said, “we can provide a home for every Navajo family.”