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GAO report addresses Alaska Native housing funds

Clarification: The GAO report focused on all federal funding distributed to Alaska Natives, not just housing funding.

Alaska Native regional entities receive the overwhelming majority of federal housing funds, the General Accountability Office said in a report last week.

From 1998 through 2003, the federal government spent $3.5 billion on Alaska Native housing. Almost all of the money -- $3 billion -- went to regional Native non-profits, according to GAO investigators. Only $483 million went directly to villages and tribal governments.

The finding appears to respond to concerns raised by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) about Native housing funds. Arguing that "sovereignty is not the answer," he said the federal government shouldn't be providing money to each and every one of the 220-plus villages and tribes in the state. Instead, he suggested that tribal funding be consolidated into regional organizations.

A year later, Stevens pulled back from his proposal after hearing directly from Native leaders. "I'm not going to use the word regionalization any more and I'll tell you why," he said at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in October 2004. "Everywhere I went I saw the results of cooperation, partnership and sharing. It's going on already."

The GAO report, which was drafted at the request of Stevens, confirms that regional non-profits are doing the bulk of the housing work. Most of the resources, about 63 percent, come from the Department of Health and Human Services, the report said. Some money also came from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Based on a review of 13 federal programs, the GAO said that non-profits and tribes built a total of 874 housing units and rehabilitated nearly 3,000 homes from 1998 through 2003. Non-profits built 666 of the units and rehabilitated about 2,100 homes, according to the report.

Yet, contrary to Stevens' concerns, the villages and tribes appeared to do a better job with the money than the regional entities, the report indicated.

For example, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council was able to build homes at a cost of $144 for per sqaure foot. And the Central Council of Haida and Tlingit Tribes built homes at a cost of $170 per square foot.

In comparison, the Arctic Slope Native Association built housing units at a cost of $267 per square foot -- the highest in the state. The Kodiak Area Native Association was second with $255 per square foot.

However, the GAO cautioned that the "various factors" influenced the cost of housing. Regional non-profits incur costs that are not borne by tribes and villages, the report said.

"For example, regional differences in housing construction costs may reflect variations in the cost of transporting building materials and equipment to remote villages. Also, differences in construction costs between regional housing authorities and villages may reflect costs housing authorities likely incur when complying with Alaska state construction and energy efficiency standards -- a condition of receiving state funds for housing construction," the GAO wrote.

The GAO found another difference in the cost to rehabilitate existing housing units. In this area, the tribes and villages had higher costs than the regions.

"Although housing authorities had higher new construction costs than villages, villages had higher costs for units that were rehabilitated without acquisition," the report stated.

Other differences were also noted in source of funding. For villages and tribes, most of their housing money came from the Indian Housing Block Grant program operated by HUD and from 136 other small federal programs.

Non-profits, however, got most of their resources from the Indian Health Service's Health Management Development Program. HUD grants were also a major source.

The GAO review found that Ketchikan Indian Corporation received 10 percent of the total housing funds used by tribes and villages. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation received 12 percent of the total funds used by non-profits, according to GAO.

Between 1993 and 2003, tribes and regional non-profits saw a 29 percent increase in housing funds, the report stated. Between 2001 and 2002, Alaska Natives saw a large funding spike but it fell down in 2003.

"The large increase between 2001 and 2002, from $586 million to $737 million, is primarily attributable to increases in HHS funding to Native villages and regional Native nonprofits. HHS funding increased from $308 million in 2001 to $475 million in 2002," GAO said. "The decrease in funding between 2002 and 2003 is primarily attributable to decreases in funding from HHS and Interior."

GAO Report -- Alaska Native Villages: Recent Federal Assistance Exceeded $3 Billion, with Most Provided to Regional Nonprofits:
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