Navajos recount litany of disappointments as tribe considers pulling housing authority’s funds
Craig Harris Dennis Wagner, The Arizona Republic
More than 100 people attended a hearing at the Navajo Nation Museum on the future of the Navajo Housing Authority and who will manage about $85 million a year in federal housing funds.
WINDOW ROCK — Eighty-two-year-old Mitzie Begay was one of the first to arrive Wednesday morning to express her disappointment with the Navajo Housing Authority. Others joined her soon, to complain about shoddy construction, wasteful spending and poor treatment.
Begay, with the help of her walker, slowly approached the podium at a public hearing and told Navajo Nation Council delegates that her NHA home in Window Rock was falling apart despite a renovation just two years ago. She said there were cracks in her ceiling, and the roofing was poorly done. In addition, she said the construction crews didn’t properly install phone lines to her home.
“The NHA. They don’t listen to us,” Begay said. “We need cooperation.”
More than 100 people attended a nearly all-day public hearing here, with many presenting their outrage over the NHA, a system that is meant to ease a crushing housing shortage on the Navajo Reservation. The comments could fuel an effort currently underway to disband the agency.
An Arizona Republic investigation found the NHA, steward of more than a billion dollars in federal funds, has failed the tribe’s people time and time again. Crucially, the agency tasked with easing the tribe’s housing shortage builds few new homes in any given year, and in some years has built zero.
The sprawling reservation, which touches parts of rural Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, is by any measure one of the poorest places in America, and studies have found more than 30,000 families need new homes built to be able to live in modern standards. To ease those needs, the tribe has been allocated $1.66 billion in federal housing funds since 1998 — more than any other tribe in the United States.
The Republic found fewer than 400 housing units were built from 2013 to 2016, according to NHA records.
The investigation also found more than $100 million had been spent on failed housing projects — some plagued with defects, some that never saw a single resident move in, one in which 90 new homes sat empty for years and then, to neighbors’ astonishment, were bulldozed.
Of the rest of the federal funding, some was spent on modernization, administration and planning, but The Republic’s investigation of NHA documents often revealed little on how those funds were used. And much of it sat unused, until the NHA at one point had accumulated nearly half a billion in unspent federal funds. The agency has reported spending down that surplus rapidly in the past three years, though it has offered few details on what it was getting for the money.
A litany of shortcomings
Questions about the agency and the federal program it administers have confronted Navajo officials, as well. At issue at Wednesday’s public hearing at the Navajo Nation Museum was the future of the NHA itself.
Navajo Nation Speaker LoRenzo Bates scheduled the hearing, also attended by one-third of the 24 council delegates.
Legislation that has moved through the Navajo Nation Council would strip the NHA’s status as the tribally designated housing entity accepting U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds. Federal dollars would instead flow to the tribe’s Division of Community Development.
The public protestations ranged from indictment of the system at large to dissatisfaction with individual construction and renovation work — complaints that recur in Navajo communities across the reservation. Some Navajos, however, said the NHA was doing a fine job and was still beset by problems from a prior administration of nearly a decade ago. Housing authority employees and supporters told delegates that the tribe doesn’t have the experience or ability to assume such a large amount of federal dollars.
Timothy Begay, who lives in Beclabito, N.M, was among the 51 people who were allocated 3 minutes each to address the delegates. He told The Republic it would take “two hours” to cover all the problems he has with his NHA home. But, he said, the biggest problem was poor electrical work.
Howard Bitsui, a 70-year-old who lives in St. Michaels, said for the past several years the NHA has ignored his complaints about shoddy construction. Yet, he’s not sure the tribe should take over the housing program.
Bitsui added he believes NHA Chief Executive Aneva “AJ” Yazzie was doing a good job, and he blamed the NHA’s problems on “ineffective subordinates.”
Louise Nelson, vice president of the Wide Ruins chapter, said the NHA should have been distributing federal funds to the 110 local chapters (communities) across the reservation in order to more effectively build homes. She also said if the NHA continues to be the tribally designated housing entity, then the organization needs a new chief executive.
The public input and lengthy comments from delegates lasted nearly 7 hours.
Bates said the council will compile all of the public comments as well as results from a survey. He said additional deliberations among all delegates could occur Thursday, but he was unsure when a vote on the legislation will happen. He added that any measure would need a detailed transition plan and input from HUD.
He also said even if the tribe took control of the federal funding, the NHA could remain as an organization that collected rental payments or renovated homes. He declined to state his position on the legislation.
Bates, at the end of the hearing, told the audience some of the common themes he heard were that Navajos were upset with the time it took to have repairs done on their homes and a lack of building codes on the reservation contributing to poorly built homes. He also understood there would need to be a smooth transition should the tribe take control of funding.
A few of the delegates chastised the NHA, but said they were open to amending the legislation that would allow the housing agency to stay in business.
Yazzie and the NHA board convened a meeting at its headquarters, a short distance from the public hearing. Christian Bigwater, NHA spokesman, said the board was discussing the legislation.
Yazzie did not speak at the hearing. In a brief interview, Yazzie said her agency needs to educate some of the delegates on the harm that would be done if federal funds were taken away from the NHA.
“The funding follows compliance. They don’t understand that,” she said.
Yazzie also said there were statements made Wednesday that need to be corrected, but she didn’t elaborate.
Chester Carl, the NHA’s former director who resigned in 2006 amid a corruption scandal, told the delegates that the NHA’s current management doesn’t have the professional capacity to build homes.
In an interview, he said the tribe should take over the federal funding and provide houses for the Navajo people.
“The best way is having an independent housing authority,” Carl said. “But at this point, it should go under the tribe because NHA is not bringing in the right personnel to do the work.”
Publisher’s Note: Permission was given exclusively to the Navajo Post to rerun this story.