The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently threatened the tribe to spend it — they’ll start taking it back.
The housing need here is desperate. The Navajo Nation is 27,000 square miles. That’s the size of West Virginia. It spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Driving across it takes half a day. Along the way you’ll see plywood shacks and broken-down trailers, some with tires on top to keep the desert wind from pulling off the roof. So it’s hard to understand why millions of federal dollars earmarked for new homes has not been spent.
"Some families actually have like three families that live in the same home," said Kermit Yazzie who works for the Navajo Housing Authority. He gave a tour of Tuba City, Ariz., where about 700 NHA homes have been built over the years.
Yazzie said the family who will soon get the keys to one home has been waiting many years. In reality it can take five to 20 years, as would-be owners deal with a maze of bureaucracy. That’s one of the reasons for the backlog.
Another is NHA has been recovering from a big scandal. In 2009 the former head of Navajo Housing was forced to leave when he was indicted for mismanaging funds.
Aneva Yazzie (no relation) took his place and found NHA needed a complete overhaul. She had a comprehensive survey done so they knew exactly what the needs were. Yazzie also had maps drawn up so they could see where the floodplains were and where it was safe to build.
"So it was really entirely a new development strategy that we were undertaking, so that we can address the backlog of dollars accumulating that wasn’t being spent, number one," Aneva Yazzie said. "And number two, being efficient with the dollars and making sure we were properly planning out these communities."
She spoke by phone from Washington, D.C., where she recently rallied members of Congress to support the Navajo Housing Authority and worked to keep the feds from taking away their grant money.
"They have no inkling what is required, given the complexities of trust land issues," she said.
Those complexities include environmental reviews, tax credits and chapter house approval.
"That exacerbates that time frame for timely development," Yazzie said.
To get a home built with NHA funds, a prospective homeowner must also deal with another part of tribal bureaucracy. He has to get permission from his neighbor if there are grazing rights on the land. Erny Zah, spokesman for the Navajo Nation president, said this grazing permit policy dates back to another era.
"The bureaucratic red tape that’s in place now created a favorable environment for ranchers and livestock owners because that’s what we depended on for our survival," Zah said. "Our codes and policies haven’t been updated to match the type of lifestyle that many Navajo people have nowadays."
HUD authorities weren’t allowed to comment on the pending issue, but Aneva Yazzie said it appeared one side wasn't talking to the other.
"HUD was very familiar with this whole process," she said. "And they’re applauding us saying, ‘This is a model for other tribes. You’re paving the way.” And it just doesn’t make sense."
The latest report NHA received from HUD in December was in fact a clean report, meaning there were no violations or recommendations. But people like Don Yellowman, who has been trying to get homes built on the reservation for years, are upset about the backlog.
"That’s hard to imagine how that could be when you have so many people that are looking for housing and a place to live," Yellowman said. "And you have living conditions and for years people denied a place to live and you hear there’s a surplus of money that’s just sitting there. That just adds to the frustration of how things have been conducted here on Navajo Nation."
A 2011 study showed a need for 34,000 new homes that will cost about $9 billion to build.