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Senate Bill Would Save Navajo Nation Housing Monies

The Senate has issued a bill to reauthorize a federal Indian housing program, unlike its companion House bill, it keeps unspent Navajo funds intact.
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The Senate has issued a new bill to reauthorize a federal Indian housing program – and, unlike its companion House bill, it keeps unspent Navajo funds intact.

Senate Bill 710, to reauthorize the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA), is scheduled for a hearing on Wednesday. If it passes the Senate, it will have to be reconciled with HR 360, the House version.

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Among several differences between the bills, the Senate bill contains a 2018 date for taking back unspent NAHASDA funds, compared to a 2015 date in the House version. The 2015 date would be particularly onerous for the Navajo Nation, which was unable to spend its housing funds until recent years, partly due to a government-imposed building moratorium called the Bennett Freeze. The Nation has estimated that the timeline in the House bill would cost Navajos $81 million this year alone – money that is already allocated for ongoing, and desperately needed, housing projects.

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The Navajo Nation is now two years into an ambitious, five-year plan to spend down its unused NAHASDA money. In the past 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. Navajo Nation House Speaker LoRenzo Bates has said that dire need remains across the reservation. A 2018 date for the recoup of unspent money, which appears in the Senate version of the reauthorization bill, will allow the Navajo Nation to complete its spend-down plan and significantly address housing needs.

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“That’s great news for the Navajo Nation to see the 2018 date,” said Carolyn Drouin, counsel for the Navajo Nation in Washington, DC. She added that the Senate version also elevates the director of Housing and Urban Development to the level of an assistant secretary, which would eliminate a level of bureaucracy for the entire program. The bills also have a different time frame for reauthorization: HR 360 extends NAHASDA from 2015 to 2019, and S. 701 reauthorizes it from 2016 to 2020. These and other differences will likely be worked out in conference if both bills pass their respective houses.

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.

A hearing on S. 710 is set to be live-streamed at 2:30 eastern on Wednesday, March 18 here.