Proposal to replace NHA fails

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, July 4, 2013

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A proposal to wrestle away and revoke Navajo Housing Authority's status as the Navajo Nation's tribally designated housing entity failed last week during a Navajo Nation Council Special Session.

By a close vote of 9 in favor and 11 opposed, NHA kept its lifeline as the tribe's TDHE, meaning that it will continue to receive funding - some $400 million - from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build much-needed homes across the sprawling 27,000-square-mile reservation.

Called the Navajo Nation Housing Commission Act of 2013 and sponsored by Jonathan Hale (Oak Springs/St. Michaels), the bill would have created a Navajo Nation Housing Commission and designated the commission as the TDHE.

In his 20-minute presentation to the Council, Hale informed his colleagues that NHA hadn't built new homes since 2007. He also cited an April 30 warning letter from HUD indicating that in 2012 NHA didn't spend $430 million in its coffers expeditiously and effectively as the current TDHE recipient.

"I come forth with this legislation to address the growing frustration with Navajo Housing Authority," Hale said, adding, "NHA will still exist, but as a separate sub-contracting enterprise."

Hale also disclaimed that two plans of operation for the proposed commission were not yet finalized, but would be available as soon as the legislation passed the Council floor.

The lack of an attached plan of operation didn't bode well for the bill - as evidenced by the testimonies against the bill and the 11 "nay" votes.

Council delegate Elmer Begay (Dilkon/Greasewood Springs/Teesto/Indian Wells/White Cone), whose chapter passed a resolution against the bill, persuaded his colleagues not to vote for the proposal, saying that enterprises, or businesses like NHA need less governmental control over them.

"Do we want to be self-interested to help ourselves first?" he said, alternating between Navajo and English. "We're supposed to represent our people."

On Jan. 11, Dilkon Chapter passed a resolution against the proposal by a vote of 19 in favor and 7 opposed.

"My vote is based on my chapters," Begay said.

Council delegates LoRenzo Bates (Nehnanezaad/Newcomb/San Juan/T'iis Tsoh Sikaad/Tsé Daa Kaan/Upper Fruitland), Jonathan Nez (Shonto/Navajo Mountain/Oljato/Ts'ah Bii Kin), Danny Simpson (Becenti/Crownpoint/Tsé'ii'ahi/Nahodishgish/Lake Valley/Nageezi/Huerfano/Whiterock) and Edmund Yazzie (Churchrock/Iyanbito/Smith Lake/Mariano Lake/Thoreau/Pinedale) also went on record to publicly explain their reasons for voting against what Yazzie called a "trigger-happy piece of legislation."

"On this legislation, we have no plan," Yazzie said. "We got to be careful with this legislation."

Nez added that a "yea" vote would equate to instability.

"You got sequestration coming through the Navajo Nation," he said, referencing the tribe's expected federal budget cut of $15.9 million.

Navajo Nation Washington Office Director Clara Pratte has maintained, in previous interviews with the Times, that she couldn't see a government entity working any faster than NHA, given the hurdles it has to step over to build homes.

"If the feds see instability, it's a perfect example to take funds," Nez added. "It sets a dangerous precedent."

As a result of their concerns, Council delegate Mel Begay (Coyote Canyon/Mexican Springs/Bahastl'ah/Naschitti/Tohatchi) moved to table the legislation until the fall session, when a plan of operation and transition plan could be finalized and presented with the proposal. The motion to table, however, failed, with 8 in favor and 12 opposed.

For Council members Katherine Benally (Chilchinbeto/Dennehotso/Kayenta) and Leonard Tsosie (Baca/Prewitt/Casamero Lake/Counselor/Littlewater/Ojo Encino/Pueblo Pintado/Torreon/Whitehorse Lake), who viewed the proposal "a different way," it was chance to create a new TDHE that would be more accountable than NHA.

"We've got a crisis," Tsosie said in an effort to sway votes. He added that 100 percent of TDHE control was given to NHA by the Council, and "they have misused it."

Tsosie also spoke about how the eight chapter communities he represents never had homes built by NHA over the course of its 50-year existence as the TDHE, and how some people have waited 20 years to get on a waiting list to get their houses built.

"It's time our leadership shines and we take a different course of action," he said.

Benally, chair for the Resources and Development Committee, and Tsosie, vice chair to the RDC, led the effort to revoke NHA's TDHE status, after hearing public testimony during their committee meetings of how NHA wasn't efficient and effective at building much-needed homes.

Another factor that may have played into the development of the TDHE proposal was a lawsuit filed by NHA against Benally and Tsosie, the RDC, the entire Council and Speaker Johnny Naize for sponsoring legislation to appoint and replace NHA commissioners serving on expired terms.

The suit was eventually dismissed on March 19 by District Court Judge Carol Perry, who encouraged the entities to "talk things out" through the principle of k'e.

Benally, who offered the second motion to bring the proposal to debate and reserved her time, was the last Council delegate to speak on the matter. She countered that there was an optional plan of operation drafted, available to be attached as supporting document, and supported by President Ben Shelly.

"We have tried to work with NHA, but instead they choose to file lawsuits against the Council," she said. "The Council has the power to do great things for our people. The commission is one of those things."

In an interview following the Council's vote, NHA CEO Aneva Yazzie told the Navajo Times she is relieved at the outcome and is now ready to focus her energy on building homes.

"Keeping the TDHE status with the NHA will not only provide stability and continuity, but this decision supports processes that have been ongoing and making NHA a more effective organization," she said.

Yazzie also said the defeat of Hale's bill tells Congress and the Obama Administration the Navajo Nation has a unified voice to secure future funding to tackle the tribe's housing needs and problems.

Meanwhile, as this stage of the saga closes, another seems to be opening.

James Zion, attorney for clients of Shiprock I and II housing projects, who are asking for an investigation of the now-defunct Fort Defiance Housing Corporation's bankruptcy while it was collecting on rent-to-own agreements with residents living at the projects, and Nelson Toledo, of Dine Bii Sihasin, emailed documents to the Navajo Times on June 30 explaining alternative motives to Hale's failed legislation.

Both Zion and Toledo are part of a coalition of housing organizations, environmental groups and private contractors, under the umbrella Navajo Public-Private Partner, which tasked the RDC with sponsoring public hearings on the 2014 Indian Housing Plan.

"Dine Bi Siihasin pointed out the flaws in the Hale legislation but the thinking was to proceed with it," the pair wrote on June 29. "We presented concrete plans for reform in both an IHP resolution and a comprehensive code and the code needs to be pushed for new legislation."

The IHP, or Indian House Plan resolution and a comprehensive code were presented to the RDC at a public hearing on the 2014 Indian Housing Plan in Shiprock on May 29.

NHA was scheduled to go before the committee and share their 2014 Indian Housing plan with the community of Shiprock, but didn't show up for the hearing. Yazzie said later she was not given enough notice of the hearing.

NHA next's step is getting the proposed 2014 Indian Housing Plan through the RDC and Council before a July 19 deadline. The RDC has already tabled the 2014 Indian Housing Plan twice, along with the NHA's annual performance plan.

The committee is expected to host another hearing on the housing plan and annual performance plan on July 9 at 10 a.m.

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