NHA a no-show at housing hearing

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

SHIPROCK, June 6, 2013

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N avajo Housing Authority's proposed 2014 Indian Housing Plan remains unknown to community members from this chapter and the Resources and Development Committee, which has oversight of the "tribally designated housing authority" charged with receiving and administering tens of millions of dollars in federal funds.

Council delegates Katherine Benally and Leonard Tsosie, of the RDC, and a coalition of housing organizations – Diné Bi Siihasin and Shiprock Community Development Corporation - were eager to hear about the 2014 Indian Housing Plan. But they were left disappointed when NHA CEO Aneva J. Yazzie and other NHA officials failed to show up for a May 31 public hearing scheduled with the committee.

On April 20, housing organizations, environmental groups and private contractors, under the umbrella Navajo Public-Private Partner, tasked the RDC with sponsoring public hearings on the 2014 Indian Housing Plan.

NHA is accused, by the committee and these organizations, of sitting on funds, not having built homes for years and rushing the annual housing plan through at the last minute without input from either the public or the Council.

NHA has a July 1 deadline of submitting its 2014 annual housing plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act.

The committee's oversight over NHA had been challenged in tribal court, when it sponsored legislation to replace board members serving on expired terms. The court battle eventually came to a halt when Window Rock District Court Judge Carol Perry dismissed a preliminary injunction on March 19, filed by NHA against the committee, Tsosie, Benally and the Navajo Nation Council.

From the May 31 public hearing, the committee heard from the Shiprock community and found that there are multiple issues affecting residents from this region of the reservation.

Aside from the $9 million NHA pledged to rebuild the South Shiprock Housing project, community members expressed discontent over NHA failing to allocate funds to address the now-defunct Fort Defiance Housing Corporation's bankruptcy while it was collecting on rent-to-own agreements with residents living at the Shiprock I and Shiprock II projects.

Since the bankruptcy, Sandstone Housing is now managing Shiprock I and II.

James Zion, attorney for Shiprock II homebuyers, informed the committee that he wants "justice done" for his clients.

He also said he drafted what he calls the Diné Housing Agency Code, which would allow for the creation and development of a new tribally designated housing authority called the Diné Housing Agency. A copy of Zion's proposal was given to the RDC for support and consideration.

The committee is considering creating another TDHE because as the current recipient of federal funds, NHA isn't spending the millions of dollars expeditiously and effectively, as indicated by an April 30 "Letter of Warning" from Randall R. Akers, administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Northern Plains Office of Native American Programs.

For its 2012 Indian Housing Plan Program, NHA had $430 million in the bank of unspent funds. The letter from Akers informed Yazzie that NHA is in violation of the federal NAHASDA law for not complying with the Indian Housing Plan and/or for not carrying out planned projects that year.

How NHA is spending according to its 2013 Indian Housing Plan wasn't listed in the warning letter from Akers to Yazzie.

In last week's Navajo Times, Yazzie, however, said, "We are spending the money."

With the warning from HUD, Tsosie claimed that Yazzie and NHA are now on a "spending spree" with most of the money going to housing renovations - a small need compared to the demand of new housing development for thousands of Navajo families.

Other topics brought up by community members include the NHA developing a thorough needs assessment study and to possibly revoke NHA's sovereign immunity status.

Tsosie said that NHA's current needs assessment study isn't "credible" enough to measure the reservation's housing needs. Some community members offered that the current study doesn't examine housing needs of families living in border towns, where most families live because there is lack of housing infrastructure on the reservation.

Nelson Toledo, from Diné Bi Siihasin, said NHA uses sovereign immunity as a shield from being sued. He came to the public hearing to plead with tribal leaders to reform NHA.

"We want to reform NHA and do it to where it helps everyone," he said. "This money that is being given to NHA is not the tribal government's or CEO's of NHA. It's public money."

Patricia Ray, CEO of Shiprock Community Development Corporation, said she was hoping Yazzie and NHA would have attended the meeting to hear about her $20 million housing development that could possibly be included in next year's Indian Housing Plan.

With a parcel of land approved by the chapter to build the Village at Four Points, a proposed multi-use mixed income commercial and residential property, near Shiprock Airport, all Ray needs is NAHASDA funding to get the project built.

"If they have those millions of dollars out there, let's get this puppy funded," said Ray, whose company also helped finance the $14-million, 96-unit Chaco River Apartments in north Shiprock.

Ray explained to the committee she had submitted her Village at Four Points proposal to NHA on Feb. 25 and was promised a follow-up by Yazzie, but that hasn't happened yet. She also doesn't know if her proposal is part of next year's annual Indian Housing Plan, and is recommending to Tsosie and Benally to add her proposal to the plan, if it's not in there for projects.

The committee, namely Tsosie and Benally, decided it would be in the best interest of the tribe and NHA to meet two weeks prior to the July 1st deadline for submitting the housing plan to HUD.

Tsosie said he would provide Yazzie and NHA with a letter notifying them that a meeting between the committee and NHA be held two weeks prior to the July 1 deadline, which would give the committee, on behalf of the public, enough time to make any necessary amendments to the housing plan.

NHA has a history of rushing the annual housing plan to the committee for "rubber stamp" approval at the eleventh hour, Tsosie explained.

Based on the testimonies from the tenants at Shiprock I and II, Tsosie said he would recommend allocating funds in next year's housing plan for a special master to investigate the bankruptcy issue.

In response to the public hearing, Christian Bigwater, a spokesman for NHA, and Yazzie issued a statement last Friday. They alleged that Tsosie organized a one-sided public hearing at Shiprock Chapter, and added that there was no formal notice provided to NHA from the RDC Committee.

NHA was listed as the main presenter on the proposed 2014 Indian Housing Plan on the RDC Committee's agenda.

"The last-minute request, lack of a formal notice, and the entire manner in which the request was made to the NHA to be a main presenter is very unprofessional, to say the least," Yazzie said.

Yazzie, who was reportedly on business travel in Phoenix during the time of the hearing, added that the lack of an official notice by the committee abuses the "people's trust."

"Housing is an important issue, and the way Delegate Tsosie conducted these meeting trivializes the serious housing issues we are confronting as a people," the CEO added.

The RDC is scheduled to host another public hearing later this month in Dilkon Chapter in an effort to hear about people's housing issues and needs from this region of the reservation.

"The question that is still being answered is who has oversight?" Benally said. "What matters to us is that NHA or a TDHE is accountable to the people it's supposed to serve. The best thing to do is for the Council to take TDHE and establish a certain body."

Contact Alastair L. Bitsoi at 928-871-1141 or email at abitsoi@navajotimes.com.

NNWO: NHA needs its own set of rules

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

WASHINGTON - When it comes to spending the money allocated to it by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Navajo Housing Authority is at a disadvantage compared to the other tribally designated housing entities, according to Clara Pratte, director of the Navajo Nation's Washington Office.

The NHA has come under fire both on the Navajo Nation and in Washington for sitting on nearly $400 million dollars in government funds, but "there are some legitimate reasons" why the entity can't spend money as fast as Washington gives it away, Pratte said.

Among tribal housing entities, "NHA is extremely unique," Pratte said. "Because of its size, it's more like a huge urban housing entity, like Chicago. It really doesn't fit with the guidelines set by NAHASDA (the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act)."

In addition to its large population and huge need for housing, the Diné are different from other tribes in that they are divided into local government units - the chapters.

"Any time the NHA plans a development, the chapter has to withdraw land for it," Pratte said. The chapter, in turn, has to get the buy-in of the local grazing permit holders, who are understandably not anxious to turn over their grazing rights to house people they may not even know.

Then there's the cumbersome bidding process and the endless line of people that have to sign off on any project, known locally as "SAS" (signatures authorization sheets).

While the Navajo Nation Council's Resources and Development Committee is trying to create an entity to replace NHA as the TDHE, Pratte said she doesn't see a government entity working any faster than the NHA.

"They'll still have to go through the same procedures," she said.

Meanwhile, the NNWO is lobbying for reauthorization of NAHASDA, including Navajo's allocation, and it does not help that two tribal entities are vying to be the designee of the grant.

"It's only natural that it (the infighting) plays into the thought process here," she said. "People read the papers."

Pratte said the office is stressing the huge need for housing turned up by NHA'S recent needs assessment, and downplaying the conflict.

"We try to educate people on why these debates are happening internally," she said, "but what we want them to look at is the number of Navajos who need housing."

Contact Cindy Yurth at cyurth@navajotimes.com.

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