NHA CEO: 'We are spending the money'

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, May 30, 2013

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O ver the last two weeks, officials at the Navajo Housing Authority have had to address criticism from various fronts after reports came out that the enterprise had $400 million sitting in banks while tribal members were desperately seeking new homes.

The stories originated from a letter of warning sent out recently by officials for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that said that NHA is spending its federal funding much too slowly and is in violation of the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act.

Aneva J. Yazzie, NHA's CEO, said Wednesday that the allegations that NHA is just sitting on all of this money is just not true.

"All of these funds have been allocated to ongoing projects," she said, adding that she was taken by surprise by the HUD warning.

What HUD authorities would like, she said, is for NHA to spend that money overnight but anyone with any knowledge of what it is liked to build any kind of project on the reservation knows that this is not possible.

NHA traditionally has had problems spending the tens of millions of dollars it gets annually from HUD in the year it was given, primarily because of the problems of getting land set aside by Navajo communities for housing projects.

Yazzie said when she came on as CEO in 2007, she discovered that the agency had $321 million waiting to be allocated for projects.

At the time, however, there were no major tracts of land set aside in the communities for housing development and NHA was looking at using the money to try and squeeze four or five more houses in land already withdrawn.

She decided at that time that something had to be done to deal with this problem and speed up construction of NHA homes but a few months into her tenure, HUD placed a moratorium that would last three years because of allegations surrounding abuse and misuse of HUD funds during the Chester Carl administration.

The moratorium gave her some breathing room and Yazzie said she met with other NHA officials and came up with a new stragetic approach to dealing with the land problems that had stymied housing development in the past.

She began meeting with chapter and community leaders throughout the reservation and began urging them to develop plans to set aside sections of land within their areas for future housing development.

As a result of this, NHA has been able to get dozens of projects up and running when the moratorium was finally lifted.

What HUD officials should realize, she said, is that it takes three to five years from conception to complete the project and she has strived to use this time to make sure that the houses NHA builds are structurally sound.

In the past, she said, it seemed as if NHA officials would build the houses "willy-nilly," not caring if it was done properly and just trying to spend the federal grant funds as fast as they could.

The latest figures provided by NHA shows that the agency has some $477 million on hand to carry out its various building programs but $179 million of that has come in since August of 2011.

That leaves some $300 million that has been left unspent over the previous 10 years and most of this is expected to be spent in the next couple of years as projects now underway throughout the reservation are completed.

In 2013 alone, he said, NHA is planning to spent $137 million on projects that are currently underway.

If you take a look at the entire 50-year history of NHA, Yazzie said, the total amount that has been allocated for housing on the Navajo Reservation has been $1.3 billion. Of that amount, NHA has spent $900 million or 76 percent of the total allocation.

On May 23, Yazzie sent a long letter to NHA officials explaining what projects are now in the works and how NHA plans on spending the funds it now has in the bank.

She pointed out that it has been less than two years since NHA made major changes required by HUD to implement its new program, which requies a multi-year approach to building homes on the eservation.

"Each stage of project implementation incurs project expenses accordingly and not all at once," she said in the letter.

Looking at the approach that NHA is taking and knowing that the money will be well-spent on decent homes for the Navajo people in the next few years, Yazzie said that she is not worried that HUD will step in and take back some of the funds it has already allocated.

"We are spending the money," she said. "It's not just sitting in the bank."

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