NHA gives tour of new projects

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

CROWNPOINT, Oct. 17, 2013

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When reporters entered the house here on Tuesday, the first thing they probably noticed was the "new house smell" that was present even though the house was originally built in the 1980s.

This was one of 50 homes that the Navajo Housing Authority had spent the last 10 months renovating for Navajo families who have been part of the NHA family since the 1980s.

"We all can't wait to move in," said Anna Marie Begay.

NHA had spent more than $100,000 renovating each of the homes, providing each of the families with new modern refrigerators and stoves as well as a new wood-burning stove in the kitchen.

The stove wasn't needed for heat - each home had its own heating system - but because these types of stoves were so prevalent in Navajo homes over generations.

The media visit on Tuesday to both renovated homes and new homes was part of an attempt by NHA officials to turn back months of articles that have been printed in area papers.

The articles criticized the current administration at NHA of mismanagement for having sums ranging from $300 million to $400 million just sitting in the bank gathering interest at a time when tens of thousands of Navajo families were living in substandard homes.

The visit to projects in Crownpoint, Navajo and Becenti in New Mexico and Chinle in Arizona was part of an effort by NHA to show that the money is being spent on homes that the Navajo families can be proud to live in.

On Tuesday, the 50 Navajo families in Crownpoint, all of whom had moved out 10 months before into vacant NHA housing while their homes were renovated, were going through a special program to basically get them reacquainted with NHA policies.

The homes are scheduled to be turned over to the Navajo families around Nov. 1 with promises that either NHA or the company that did the renovation - Sowers Builders - would be available to make any repairs that were necessary.

Frank Begaye, the project foreman, said his crews would be available for minor repairs and Sowers would be called in if the problem was major.

Each of the homes went through major renovation, to the point where the inside of the house was torn down to the frame and then built up again to make sure that all existing codes were followed.

He and others involved in the renovation stressed that regular inspections were conducted to make sure that the renovation was going properly and that everything possible was being done to create a home environment that the Navajo owners would be proud of.

Aneva Yazzie, the housing agency's CEO, has said repeatedly that the old system of building homes by NHA would not be followed.

The agency has come under severe criticism from dozens of families who moved into NHA in the past for their shoddy construction, to the point where some families said their NHA homes were unlivable.

Yazzie blames this on past practices in which NHA hired companies that had a reputation for taking shortcuts and not building quality homes.

This practice was made even worse by NHA policies that allowed the companies to do their own inspections.

She said she got rid of that practice as soon as she came on board as CEO in 2007.

Today, inspections are done by outside inspectors and NHA has set up requirements that the homes have to be up to and meet all standards.

After visiting the homes that have just gone under renovation, the media was taken to another project located about two miles away, near the new jail and court complex built by the tribe.

This complex showed modern homes that were built two years ago and turned over to Navajo families, all of whom had been on a waiting list for years in the hopes of one day getting a new home.

Outside of one of the homes, Yazzie spoke about the housing needs on the Navajo Reservation -- 34,000 new homes needed just to meet current needs and another 34,000 homes need to be renovated.

"That's going to cost $9 billion," she said.

And that is going to take a lot of time, considering the fact that the Navajo tribe gets between $80 million and $85 million a year for new construction as well as renovation of existing Navajo homes.

Yazzie said she was proud of the fact that NHA was on course to spending $137 million this year on new and renovated housing, some $5 million more than they originally planned on spending.

NHA now has some 500 projects scattered all over the Navajo Reservation with hundreds more in the planning stages.

Yazzie said another thing she was proud of was the fact that in today's NHA, Navajo companies play a major role from the design of the building, to the planning of the projects and to the final construction.

As a result, the economy on the Navajo reservation is seeing a large percentage of the dollars NHA is spending go into the pockets of Navajo families This was made even more clear by the fact that one of the people who spoke to the press at the new home site in Crownpoint was Leon Shirley, a Navajo architect from Albuquerque who came up with the designs for the new homes.

The homes from the outside looked impressive and the only thing that marred the housing complex was the lack of landscaping.

Only a few of the homes had trees -- most were just surrounded by dirt.

Shirley said that about 50 years year ago when NHA started building homes on the reservation, attention was paid to landscaping but NHA officials soon learned that this was a hopeless cause because few families bothered to maintain the yards.

Now the money that once went to landscaping is being used to build new homes.

Another thing that was quite clear at the site was that the homes were basically in the middle of nowhere.

The nearest stores were miles away in Crownpoint and there were no plans, because of the Navajo Nation's land use polices, of having convenience stores or gasoline stations built near the homes, as would be the custom if a major housing subdivision like this was done off the reservation.

The people living in the new homes could go outside their doors and see thousands of acres in all directions available for more housing or development of commercial business.

There was space for thousands of new homes. But Yazzie said that is probably not going to happen. Almost all of the construction now underway by NHA is being done on lands that were turned over to NHA decades ago.

And even though every chapter on the reservation is clamoring for new housing projects, getting the land set aside for it takes years and sometimes decades.

"It's all up to the chapters," said Yazzie. "They have to withdraw the land."

On the Navajo reservation, that's easier said than done with Navajo families with grazing rights that go back seven or eight decades taking the position that new housing subdivisions are great -- as long as they are not on their lands.

Yazzie said she is working with allÊof the chapters now to get each one to come up with a master plan that will set aside lands in their areas that can be used for housing projects.

Once that is done, many more projects will go from the drawing board to actual construction.

And this will definitely be needed because NHA has plans under development that will open the housing market to thousands of more Navajo families.

Yazzie pointed out that recent census figures indicate that 60 percent of the tribe's members live off the reservation and that percentage is growing.

Part of that stems from the lack of jobs but it also has to do with housing.

Hundreds of Navajo families that live in border communities like Gallup and Farmington would probably move back to the Navajo reservation if there was housing available.

But these Navajo families, because of their income, aren't eligible under current guidelines to get NHA housing.

That's going to change, she said, next spring when new guidelines are put in place that will allow, for the first time, middle-class Navajo families as well as professional Navajos, to qualify for NHA housing.

Yazzie has had a difficult several months as she has been under attack not only from federal housing officials but from members of the Navajo Nation Council for the lack of housing development.

But she is hoping thatÊthe construction of new homes as well as the renovation of old homes happening throughout the Navajo reservation will change a lot of people's minds about the direction NHA is taking.

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