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Tribes Seeks Sovereignty Grand Slam With Reauthorization of Housing Act

As reauthorization of NAHASDA comes before Congress, a vote authorizing dozens of changes to NAHASDA suggested by tribes would be another grand slam.
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When Congress approved the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act in 1996, turning over control of federal housing assistance to tribes, it was a big home run for American Indian sovereignty. Now, as reauthorization of the landmark housing bill comes before Congress, a vote authorizing dozens of changes to NAHASDA suggested by tribes themselves would be another grand slam for self determination.

Officials of the National American Indian Housing Council are urging all tribes to lobby their congressional representatives in favor of the reauthorization of NAHASDA, which expired last year. The reauthorization bill, HR 4329, introduced by Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM, is coming up for consideration on the floor of the House of Representatives during the “lame duck” session of Congress, which begins November 12.

David Sanborn, Penobscot, executive director of Washington, DC-based NAIHC, said tribal outreach to Congress to get the bill passed during the lame duck session is important because “we don’t know what’s going to happen next year” (after the recent nationwide elections that will turn control of the Senate over to the Republicans).

Jacqueline Pata, Tlingit, executive director of the DC-based National Congress of American Indians (and the director of NAIHC in 1996 when NAHASDA was passed), commented “It is vital for NAHASDA to be reauthorized during the remaining days of this Congress. The housing need in Indian country continues to lag far behind non-Native communities. Without adequate housing, tribes cannot recruit essential employees such as teachers, doctors and law enforcement officials that are vital to ensuring the health, safety and education of their members.”

Sanborn is “confident” the House bill will be voted on and will pass this year. The Senate version of the reauthorization, which differs in some details from the House bill, is currently being held in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, but Sanborn said committee sources tell NAIHC the Senate will consider the House version if it is passed.

NAIHC has conducted an 18 month, eight-stop “listening tour” of Indian housing leaders to get their views on this latest NAHASDA reauthorization (there have been several since 1996), and the bill as introduced contains many of their suggestions, arrived at by a consensus process. Sanborn said the meetings came to consensus on 30 potential provisions for a reauthorized NAHASDA and that “almost all” of them are included in the House bill. They include:

—Expediting approvals on Indian Housing Plans and petitions to HUD, which administers NAHASDA.

—Streamlining environmental requirements so multiple assessments will not have to be done on housing projects.

—Being allowed to blend funds for construction and sanitation facilities.

—Expediting more housing for Native American veterans.

Regardless of whether all or only some of these tribally-vetted provisions survive the rough and tumble of lawmaking, NAHASDA, which focuses on low-income families, already has to be considered the most important Indian housing bill ever passed. Here are some of the revolutionary things NAHASDA has achieved:

—It gave tribes and their housing entities effective control over their housing assistance, wiping out decades-old HUD efforts like the Mutual Help program, best known for the creation of the despised “HUD houses” on reservations. Instead, housing money is now distributed to tribes in annual block grants determined by a formula, for tribes or their housing entities to use as they think best.

—It dictated a sovereignty-friendly consultation relationship between HUD and tribes, which remains in effect today.

—It authorized the first substantial federal housing assistance of any kind to Native Hawaiians. Title VIII of NAHASDA, added in 2000 after the original bill, sparked housing assistance to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands for Natives living on their homelands and a mortgage guarantee program, the 184-A, for Native Hawaiians.

—It directed tribes to leverage their housing assistance with money from private lenders for mortgages for Indians and money for construction and infrastructure development. This has resulted in the development of tens of thousands of homes in Indian country, besting by far the amount of annual production done under Mutual Help and other 1937 Housing Act programs.

And that has led, slowly, to thousands of mortgages being extended on reservations where lenders had never ventured before. (The General Accountability Office surveyed all tribes for the years 1992 through 1996, and could find just 91 home loans made on reservations during those five years.)

—It established a project loan in its Title VI to encourage lenders, through a 95 percent subsidy, to make the kind of big loans for things like construction, infrastructure and fresh water and sanitation facilities that would ensure housing projects moved forward. Though the program got off to a slow start, Title VI loans are much more common now and recently passed the $200 million mark. The biggest one to date is absolutely gigantic: $50 million extended by Bank One of Oklahoma to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma to finance construction or acquisition of nearly five hundred homes.

—NAHASDA boosted the firepower of HUD’s existing section 184 Indian mortgage loan by allowing tribes themselves to receive HUD 184s as well as individual Indians. The HUD 184 program this past year passed the $4 billion mark in Native mortgage finance. Though most loans have been made off-reservation rather than on, HUD claims most of the off-reservation loans are on lands adjacent to reservations.

One example of a big use of HUD 184s is on the White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona, where a total financing of $25 million, including individual HUD 184 loans from Bank One, helped build 250 single-family homes.

It should be noted that NAHASDA has not revolutionized the amount of money tribes receive from the federal government, just the way it can be used. Though substantially higher than yearly housing appropriations prior to NAHASDA, this year’s funding level of $650 million has remained essentially flat for many years, with fluctuations up and down as determined by financial or political considerations.

The original NAHASDA’s road to passage was fairly swift but still something of a surprise. A “Midnight’s Child" approved by the Senate in the last hours of the 104th Congress on October 3, 1996, it was introduced on March 29, 1996 by Rep. Rick Lazio, R-NY, a staunch conservative who became a housing advocate when he served as chairman of the House housing subcommittee. Lazio briefed housing leaders on NAHASDA’s Congressional progress at NAIHC’s annual meeting in 1996, but said he couldn’t be certain of its passage.

NCAI’s Pata said the NAHASDA reauthorization brought back memories of 1996 for her, “like the 200 tribal leaders that came to DC to share their vision of what kind of housing delivery system would work for our communities. The memory I remember best was when tribal leaders said they wanted a program that recognized the sovereignty and self-determination of tribes and encouraged opportunity. Tribes wanted a say in their housing programs just like other governments did.”

After being signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 26, 1996, a revolutionary sovereignty-recognizing negotiated rulemaking took place between officials of HUD and dozens of tribal housing leaders. This was a long but fruitful negotiation which resulted in the final rule for NAHASDA, posted in the Federal Register on March 12, 1998. Pata remembered “Lots of laughter and tears as we worked hard to negotiate those first regs.”

An idea of the breathtaking range and scope of NAHASDA can be gotten from the list of its primary objectives as spelled by the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR):

—To assist and promote affordable housing activities to develop, maintain and operate affordable housing in safe and healthy environments on Indian reservations and in other Indian areas for occupancy by low-income Indian families.

—To ensure better access to private mortgage markets for Indian tribes and their members and to promote self-sufficiency of Indian tribes and their members.

—To coordinate activities to provide housing for Indian tribes and their members and to promote self-sufficiency of Indian tribes and their members.

—To plan for and integrate infrastructure resources for Indian tribes with housing development for Indian tribes.

—To promote the development of private capital markets in Indian country and to allow such markets to operate and grow, thereby benefiting Indian communities.

“This is a good program,” NAIHC’s Sanborn concluded. “And it’s worked since 1996. It has helped Indian country, and it has helped low-income families.”

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