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Millions missing, misspent or unused to build Navajo housing

Chris Ramirez
February 14, 2017 10:21 PM

Clara and Chee Begaye built their Shiprock home in 1969 from timber they harvested in nearby mountains. They raised their children in that home and are now living out their senior years in the dwelling. 

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Through the years, rain has eroded the timber. Rainwater also flows under the home’s foundation during storms, which has caused the floors to buckle and the tiles to break off. The home lacks basic heating and cooling systems. The couple’s bed is placed next to the home’s wooden stove so that the couple can sleep with some warmth. 

As members of the Navajo Nation, the Begayes are entitled to some financial help to modernize their home. In fact, they may even qualify for a new home. But when they inquired about help in the late 1990s, they were told they would be placed on the list. 

Years later, they asked for help again, only to be told the money was gone.

The Begayes' story is one that is all too familiar with Navajo families. The Navajo Nation has a serious housing crisis, but much of the money available to put a dent in the problem has been squandered away. 

NAHASDA

In 1996, Congress passed the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA). In short, the act provides millions of dollars each year to American Indian tribes so that they can address their housing needs. The grants can be used to acquire land for housing developments, build out housing units or modernize existing housing.

On the Navajo Nation, the Navajo Housing Authority is the agency charged with applying for and administering the grants, in addition to planning and building the housing units. According to the NHA, the federal government has appropriated $1.66 billion in NAHASDA funds since 1998.

THE HISTORY OF PROBLEMS

There is no other way to describe the NHA’s history of managing the NAHASDA funds other than a colossal failure. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been misused, misspent, unspent or are missing. 

  • In 2009, the CEO of the Navajo Housing Authority was federally indicted on criminal conspiracy, accused of getting kickbacks from a subcontractor. A jury later acquitted him.
  • In 2007, an audit found $53 million was spent on 14 housing projects that never got off the ground or were started but never finished across the Navajo Nation.
  • $7 million was spent on igloo-shaped homes in Tolani Lake, Arizona. Nobody has ever lived in them and likely never will. One of the units appears to be burned. A fence now surrounds the area to keep intruders out.
  • $12 million was spent on a housing project in Shiprock, New Mexico. But after it was discovered that money was being stolen during construction, the project came to a halt.  Looters stole building materials and appliances, forcing the NHA to bulldoze the construction.  Only one home exists on the land today.
  • $3.3 million was spent on a new community in Aneth, Utah, but residents complain the construction was shoddy and the homes are already in need of repair. One resident explained that her plumbing wasn’t done correctly, preventing hot water from coming out of her shower.
  • By the NHA’s own records, $25 million is unaccounted for. 
  • The same records indicate $210 million remain unused in an account.
  • According to an investigative report by the Arizona Republic newspaper, the NHA built no new homes from 2008-2011.
  • According to an investigative report from the Arizona Republic, the NHA built fewer than 300 single family homes 2012-2016.

ACCOUNTABILITY

In 2007, Aneva “AJ” Yazzie took over as CEO of the NHA.  Yazzie acknowledged the history of problems prior to 2007, but in an interview with KOB, argued that the agency has turned a corner since then.

“When I came in, I had to assess what happened previously because there were violations on record with the federal government,” Yazzie said.  “One of my immediate tasks was to ascertain the degree of those problems and actually do a forensic review going back to 1998 as to what occurred and try to reconstruct those deficiencies and make corrective actions.”

Yazzie said that the federal government halted spending NAHASDA funds on the Navajo Nation for three years, forcing the NHA to evaluate its operations. During that time, Yazzie said she conducted a floodplain assessment across the Navajo Nation so that the NHA could end the practice of building housing projects in floodplains.

She also surveyed Navajo families to get a better understanding of the tribe’s housing needs. Yazzie said that since 2010, the focus has been on getting smart housing projects designed and built; a process that takes about four years per project.

When asked why $210 million remains in an account, Yazzie stated the current balance dates back to 2014.

“We have to look at the sites for environmental review; we have to work with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department to release the funds," she said. "Those are the processes before we even move to construction.”

CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT

Congress is aware of the Navajo Nation’s housing crisis and the Navajo Housing Authority’s problems. 

“The key thing for me is that there needs to be more accountability,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.  “I think the Navajo Nation, in terms of supervising the Navajo Housing Authority, and the Congress will end up doing oversight.”

Udall sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. He told KOB he believes the Navajo Housing Authority should continue to receive NAHASDA funds despite its disastrous history. Udall is afraid halting the funds could adversely affect the most vulnerable of the Navajo population.  

Navajo families like the Begayes are counting on progress. History has failed Indian Country too many times.  The housing crisis is just one failure of many. The Navajos deserve the future to finally be on their side. 

Credits

Chris Ramirez

Copyright 2017 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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