Suspension of Indian housing leader impacts all tribes

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Perhaps the most important tribal expert and national leader on Indian housing, Navajo Housing Authority CEO Chester Carl, was suspended by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for accepting gifts worth thousands of dollars from a contractor doing business with NHA. As the Navajo Times reported on Nov. 2: “Carl is one of the most influential Native Americans in the housing industry, and headed the largest Indian housing authority in the U.S.”

Given Carl’s shrewd political skills, lengthy service as the tribal-side leader when HUD and tribal officials came together, and possibly unequalled knowledge of the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act of 1996 – the law governing allocation of funds for Indian housing programs – Carl’s departure is likely to be felt not just on the Navajo Nation, but across Indian country.

It would be hard to overemphasize the role Carl has played in Indian housing since the passage of NAHASDA. As twice-elected chairman of the National American Indian Housing Council, Carl was instrumental in advocating for incremental increases in congressional allocations to fund tribal housing programs as well as in helping increase the knowledge across tribes of the policies and programs most effective in meeting the housing needs of Indian communities. Finally, although HUD moved into more of a facilitating than a directing role under NAHASDA, when items did come up for negotiation, in their interactions with HUD officials tribes made sure to send their best forward: Carl was the face of the tribal side of Indian housing.

Indian housing needs are acute. Before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last year, Carl, in his role as NAIHC chairman, testified, “Native Americans are three times more likely to live in overcrowded housing than other Americans. Native Americans are more likely to lack sewage and water systems, and more likely to lack telephone lines and electricity than other Americans.” Carl concluded by urging Congress not to “forget the desperate housing conditions Native Americans are enduring day after day.”

Congressional budgetary attention is critical to ensuring the success of NAHASDA-based tribal housing delivery. NAHASDA was enacted in recognition that the then-existing system – controlled federally by HUD and not locally by tribes – was failing to meet the basic needs of Indian families and was not adequately improving housing on reservation. Additionally, because it transferred greater authority for their housing to tribes, NAHASDA fit well with both the larger government goal of encouraging self-determination and with the federalism trend towards devolution through block-grants. Through NAHASDA, tribes suddenly had a greater ability to respond to their particular housing needs and greater flexibility with regard to how they met their housing needs. Whether by incorporating traditional housing design elements or by favoring the construction of housing upon sites that take into account traditional family structures or land uses, many tribes have managed to make NAHASDA their own.

Yet, at least on the Navajo Nation, Carl, and more generally the NHA, has been subjected to many criticisms, as Carl acknowledged in an Aug. 21, 2001, guest column in Indian Country Today (“Navajo Housing Authority moves past critics to real challenges,” Vol. 21, Iss. 11). The good and the bad of Navajo housing can be seen by everyone on the reservation. Dine’ routinely observe decrepit older public housing subdivisions or, worse yet, new subdivisions standing vacant long after seeming project completion; and many tribal members have their own frustrating stories of trying to deal with NHA.

Yet, new, well-done and very positive developments (such as a beautiful one near Cove) are also evident throughout the Navajo Nation. As Carl noted in 2001, NHA managed in five years to increase the construction of new homes from 100 in 1995 to 1,100 in 2001. According to NHA’s general counsel, Martin Avery, Carl “very effectively” balanced his role heading NHA and his national Indian housing leadership role. With Avery’s observation that neither NHA nor Carl could have gotten where they did get without the other, the question looming is what effect the loss of Carl will have on the Navajo Nation and other tribes as they seek to get where they want to get with regard to their housing needs?

It is impossible to precisely identify the possible harms to Indian housing flowing out of the loss of Carl as a leader on behalf of tribal housing authorities, harms perhaps exacerbated by the manner of his exit (according to the Navajo Times, Carl had notified NHA and the tribe of his intention to resign for health reasons before the suspension, but the timing probably should raise eyebrows). Those working for NHA seem confident in the organization’s ability to weather this storm and have briefed various committees of the Navajo Nation on the situation. Yet the vacancy announcement recently posted to its Web site attests to the challenge facing the Navajo Nation in finding an adequate replacement for Carl. The position involves overseeing an annual budget “exceeding $80,000,000” and supervising upwards of 500 employees. The challenge for Indian country and the Indian housing community is perhaps even greater, though not the subject of a vacancy announcement.

In my own interactions with Carl, he struck me as an immensely confident man whose confidence I believed was justified given his uniquely comprehensive and nuanced understanding of NAHASDA as well as the high regard HUD officials and tribal leaders had for him. Given what little HUD is saying about the suspension, there is little that can now be said about the merits of the allegations against Carl, but I will admit that I had two reactions to the news: I was taken aback by Carl’s fall from grace, and I was and am deeply concerned about the effect his fall might have on Indian housing everywhere.

<i>Ezra Rosser is an assistant professor of law at American University Washington College of Law, where he teaches federal Indian law and poverty law.