NHA's broken promises result in winter misery

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Jan 19, 20112

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(Times photo - Paul Natonabah)

Dressed in warm clothes, Edward Begay Sr. points to portable electric heater he and his wife Velma Jean Yazzie use for heating in their NHA house in Navajo, N.M.

Woodstoves, in new and renovated Navajo Housing Authority public housing units across the Navajo Nation, are no longer an option to keep tenants warm during the winter months, according to officials here at NHA headquarters.

"All our public units that undergo renovation and going forward from here, they don't come with woodstoves," said Roberta Roberts, director of government and public relations for NHA, in a Jan. 13 interview.

Unfortunately for the 44 tenants occupying NHA units on Poplar Avenue in Navajo, N.M., they had to find that out the hard way and say they are suffering through a cold, miserable winter in inadequately heated houses as a result.

"NHA promised us that we would have woodstoves," said Golden Moore, president of the Fuzzy Mountain View Resident Organization, which he and other tenants reestablished in August to maintain a healthy and safe environment in a neighborhood formerly known for drugs and gang violence.

But according to Roberts, the promise Moore and the rest of the resident organization speak of was merely a request sent to NHA Housing Specialist Virginia Brown.

The Navajo Times was not allowed to interview Brown or CEO Aneva Yazzie for this story. The agency's policy is for its public relations office to handle all information requests.

The Times emailed Yazzie questions aimed at determining who was responsible for misleading the tenants, how the agency could impose a policy that would affect the livability of its housing with no written notice or discussion with tenants, and why it continues to produce housing that does not meet commonly accepted standards for energy efficiency.

NHA officials assigned to talk with the Times ascribed the problem to "miscommunication" and were unable to answer key questions about the housing at Navajo and elsewhere on the reservation.

Responding to the question about why the promised woodstoves were never installed, Roberts quotes Virginia Brown saying that she merely worked with the residents' group on a resolution it was proposing.

"Virginia said to me, 'I told them I would forward that and I did. I didn't say, per se, it is here. But I did prepare and assist them as much as I can to forward that proposal for consideration for woodstoves.'"

Explaining the reason for the ban, Roberts acknowledged it was nowhere stated in writing and was announced for the first time during the Jan. 13 interview with the Times.

"We have had some units burn over the years and it stems from the woodstoves or taking out ashes and improperly putting away ashes," she said. "Those combined have led to public rentals not having woodstoves."

Moore and the other Fuzzy Mountain tenants are unanimous in stating that Brown unequivocally promised that woodstoves would be installed. Tenants raised the point before moving in last April, and the promise was confirmed repeatedly after that by Brown, Moore said.

NHA maintenance workers at the sub-office in Navajo even asked residents to state their preference for a stove with a glass or iron door, furthering the tenants' perception that the stoves would be installed, he said.

Crying for help

Moore said when the stoves were not in place as the tenants began moving into their units, the residents' association unanimously passed a resolution on Aug. 17, 2011, calling attention to Brown's promises and requesting the stoves, exhaust pipes, and floors and wall hearths for each of 45 the renovated units.

Since August, the group has written three letters detailing the need for woodstoves as a second source of heat to offset the high cost of running the central heating furnaces in the houses.

Letters went to Chief Finance Officer Marlene Lynch on Oct. 24, Region III Maintenance Supervisor Mike James on Nov. 15, and Aneva Yazzie on Dec. 16.

The furnaces run on LP, and consume a couple of hundred gallons a month during cold weather, the tenants said, adding that the cost to fill a 250-gallon LP tank is about $1,500. Most do not have anywhere near enough money for that.

"Most of our tenants are low income and are struggling to purchase propane every two weeks to keep the house warm and to prevent water freezes," Moore said, adding that woodstoves in the units, which range in size from three to five bedrooms, would save tenants time, money and energy.

Residents Lawson and Sandra Nakai reckon a woodstove in their unit would save them enough money to cover their $450 rent and $254.32 utility bill for the month of January.

On Oct. 17 and again on Nov. 30, the Nakais paid Nation's Gas Technology $100 for 27.1 gallons of propane, which was gone within two weeks.

NHA describes the furnaces as high-efficiency, but the tenants say they are not nearly as effective as a woodstove in keeping the houses comfortable, in addition to being extremely expensive to use.

The Nakais are among many residents of the refurbished units who have filed complaints with the local NHA office detailing what they say is shoddy workmanship, such as gaps in the doorframes that make it hard to keep out the cold air.

The tenants say the houses are so cold that they bundle up inside and sometimes retreat outside to their vehicles to warm up.

NHA standards questioned

When the Navajo Times visited Poplar Avenue on Jan. 10, this reporter witnessed how frost developed on the inside windowsills, the use of Sunbeam electric space heaters, and layers of blankets and towels used seal out drafts.

At the three-bedroom unit of Edward Begay and Velma Yazzie, two electric heaters were going but the room temperature was only about 50 degrees.

One especially drafty bedroom was sealed off from the rest of the house, and as Begay and Yazzie showed it to a visitor, their breath was visible as they spoke.

"We don't stay in that room because it's real cold, like ice," Yazzie said. "It's really cold here for our kids. They have to wear two jackets and two sweat pants. If the kids are cold, they go outside in the car or sit with blankets."

Because the furnaces seemed unable to maintain comfortable room temperatures, the Times asked NHA Chief Operating Officer Vincent Shirley on Jan. 11 how the houses are insulated.

He checked and said the attics have R-30 fiberglass insulation and the walls have R-15. Shirley said the houses meet federal specifications, but according to federal and industry standards for the climate zone at Navajo, elevation 7,113 feet, houses should have at least R-38 insulation in the ceilings and R-20 in the walls.

Asked if other subdivision units across the Navajo Nation meet the minimum insulation guidelines for their respective climates, Roberts replied, "You're asking me a million dollar question that I do not know."

NHA is trying to ease the Fuzzy Mountain residents' discomfort. Roberts said the enterprise will reimburse them for LP costs through the end of cold weather this winter, and that tanks would be refilled and maintained at 80 percent volume until the end of winter.

"Because it's a whole development having the same issues, construction services has coordinated and is working in the springtime to bring back the mechanical engineers because the homes are still under warranty right now," Roberts said.

"We have been in contact with the local propane company that serves a majority of them and will work with them to get them payments to have a full tank for the winter," Roberts said, adding that the suppliers, Nation's Gas and Ferrell Gas, know the consumption rates for each house.

As soon as any deficiencies are identified in all 45 units by NHA and the contractor, Phoenix-based Dean Douglas, Roberts said corrective action would take place immediately.

In the long term, Roberts said, NHA will consider revisiting the utility allowance and adjust the allowance to current market conditions.

"Utility allowance is a break in the rent payment," she said. "Electric, water and propane is so expensive. We need to change that based on the last number of gas prices."

Although the update from NHA sounds promising, it does not bode well for FMVRO Treasurer Miranda Smith, and the residents she represents.

"In the end it will cost more money for NHA to reimburse its customers and hire engineers and contractors to fix the flaws, rather than to install woodstoves. The stoves will outlast the temporary fixes," she said.

"Furthermore, reimbursements are only a temporary solution," she said, the homes only have nine more months until the warranty expires. A permanent solution needs to be done now."

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