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Indian housing act finally signed into law
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Filed Under: National | Politics

It took a lot of hard work but a bill to reauthorize the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act was finally signed into law on Tuesday.

Prospects seemed shaky earlier this year when an unrelated controversy threatened to derail H.R.2786. A compromise on the issue led to passage of the bill in the final days of the 110th Congress.

The update now gives tribes more flexibility to address housing issues throughout Indian Country. Tribal advocates said the bill gives real meaning to the words "self-determination" in NAHASDA, which was originally enacted in 1996.

"Dilapidated houses and over-crowded living conditions lead to weak school performance, poor heath, and contribute to a hopelessness that few Americans witness as part of their daily lives. By reauthorizing NAHASDA, Congress has demonstrated incredible dedication to improve the dire housing conditions that too many Native Americans face," said Marty Shuravloff, the chairman of the National American Indian Housing Council.

According to NAIHC, 14.7 percent of homes on reservations and in Alaska Native villages suffer from overcrowding, compared to 5.7 percent nationally. Nearly 12 percent of reservation and village homes lack complete plumbing, 14 percent lack electricity and 11 percent lack kitchen facilities, rates far higher than the national average.

"This bill is more than just a housing act -- it will give tribes more authority over their own land and truly help build stronger communities in Indian Country," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

"Given the great need for improvements in housing stocks for Alaska Natives and Indian tribes nationwide, these changes offer the hope of substantially increasing the availability of quality housing to Native people in the near future," added Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee's vice chair.

The bill, which extends NAHASDA through 2013, marks one of the few substantive achievements for Indian Country in the 110th Congress. A number of tribal-specific bills made it through but the big ticket items -- most notably the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act -- failed to pass.

Some of the inaction can be traced to a controversy involving the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and its removal of the Freedmen, who are the descendants of former slaves, from tribal rolls. NAIHC earlier this year warned that a failure to resolve the issue could hurt NAHASDA.

But tribal advocates also noted it would be hard to get any major legislation through Congress due to the presidential election. As other issues like the national economic crisis dominated the agenda in the last few weeks, there was a big push to ensure NAHASDA made the cut.

"NAIHC is grateful for the outpouring of support from a broad coalition of tribal leaders nationally and the many tribal housing partners that helped in the final push to get this bill passed before the end of the 110th Congress," said Paul Lumley, the group's executive director. "We couldn't have accomplished this without their support."

Beyond extending the Indian Housing Block Grant program and the Title VI Loan Guarantee Program, the reauthorization makes significant changes so tribes are better able to use federal housing dollars as they see fit. A new subtitle called "Self-Determined Housing Activities for Tribal Communities" recognizes the need for flexibility.

"Tribes need adequate flexibility and autonomy to use Indian Housing Block Grant dollars effectively, efficiently and in a manner that makes the most sense for tribal members' specific needs," said Rep. Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico), who introduced the subtitle.

Another amendment seeks to improve data collection at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Tribes want more accurate figures to show they are using funds appropriated by Congress wisely.

The bill also seeks to resolve an issue that prompted HUD to withhold $300 million in funds to tribes after a Montana tribe's housing authority won a court case in 2006. The amendment changes the formula at issue in the case but allows tribes to file new lawsuits within 45 days of NAHASDA's enactment into law.

NAHASDA Reauthorization Documents:
Press Release | Text of H.R.2786 | Overview | Section-By-Section Analysis

Related Stories:
Broken promise on Indian health care bill (10/15)
NAHASDA clears Congress with Freedmen provision (09/26)
Cherokee Freedmen dispute a threat to NAHASDA (4/24)
Freedmen issue weighs heavy on Capitol Hill (4/14)
House approves NAHASDA reauthorization (9/7)

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