House moves quickly on bill to renew Indian housing programs

A Cherokee Nation housing unit in Oklahoma. Photo from Housing Authority of the Cherokee Nation

The Republican-led House voted 297 to 98 on Monday to pass H.R.360, a bill to reauthorize the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act.

NAHASDA first became law in 1996 to give tribes greater control over federal housing funds but it expired in September 2013. Indian Country has been pushing hard for a renewal to ensure the success of critical programs.

"We applaud the strong bipartisan support that led to the passage of H.R.360 by the House of Representatives," Sami Jo Difuntorum, the chairwoman of the National American Indian Housing Council, said in a press release.

Members from both sides of the aisle spoke in favor of the bill during debate yesterday. But 95 Republicans voted against it although none of them came to the floor to explain their objections.

Of the three Democrats that voted no, only Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California) offered a public explanation. She raised concerns about the citizenship status of the Freedmen, who are the descendants of African slaves once held within the Cherokee Nation.

Section 801 of the 2008 reauthorization of NAHASDA prevents the tribe from receiving housing funds if the Freedmen are disenrolled. At one point, the Department of Housing and Urban Development withheld about $33 million after the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court supported the removal of the descendants.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Debate on H.R.360

Since the provision is linked to ongoing litigation, the tribe gained access to the funds after agreeing to a federal court order that maintains the citizenship of the Freedmen. Section 602 of the H.R.360 includes similar language but Waters said will not protect the descendants from being removed in the future.

"Despite my repeated objections, Republicans have refused to include a provision in this bill that offers protections for the Cherokee Freedmen," Waters said in a statement submitted for the Congressional Record. "As many people know, the Cherokee Freedmen are the descendants of former African American slaves of the Cherokee, who are facing possible expulsion by the Cherokee Nation."

Waters also objected to another provision that allows tribes to waive the so-called Brooke Rule that prevents the rent and utilities on a public housing unit from exceeding 30 percent of the household income of residents. Indian Country is divided on the issue and S.710, the version introduced in the Senate, does not address the controversy.

"By stripping away this basic safeguard, this bill would make low-income Native Americans vulnerable to unlimited increases in rent without any kind of hardship exemptions in place," Waters said in her statement.

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Arizona) also voted no on H.R.360 but did not offer a public explanation. However, she represents the Navajo Nation, whose leaders oppose a provision that would deny the tribe an estimated $81 million in Indian Housing Block Grant funds that are carried over from prior fiscal years.

“If the language goes into effect, the NHA and the Navajo Nation will potentially lose $81 million in IHBG funding meant for Navajo families and with a $9 billion housing need on the Navajo Nation this would tremendously impact the services we provide," Navajo Housing Authority CEO Aneva Yazzie said in February, when the Navajo Nation Council passed a bill to oppose Section 302 of H.R.360

“The proposed language is discriminatory as it singles out and deliberately targets the Navajo Nation and the NHA,” the council said in Legislation No. 0049-15.

S.710 contains a similar provision to address the carry-over funds but Navajo leaders support that version because the effective date is January 1, 2018. The effective date in H.R.360 is January of this year, meaning the tribe would be denied the funds immediately if the bill became law as written.

The House passed H.R.360 without holding a hearing on the bill. However, a similar version cleared the chamber during the final days of the 113th Congress.

The Senate never took action so supporters are hoping the 114th Congress will be different. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing on S.710 just last week.

"We are hopeful that the Senate will take similar swift action on S.B. 710, the Senate companion bill," Difuntorum said. "NAHASDA Reauthorization is vital to the continued success of Indian housing programs throughout the country."

The bill provides $650 million for Indian Country. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a member of the Chickasaw Nation, acknowledged the amount isn't enough to address the needs.

"We all wish the sum could be more," Cole said on the floor yesterday. "$650 million is a lot of money, but spread across a population of almost three million individuals and over 57 million acres, an area of land about the size of Wyoming, it is maybe not as much as we would like, particularly given the severe needs, but it is a good faith effort, and it is appropriate given the difficult financial times we are in."

Additional Statements:
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) | Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Mark Takai (D-Hawaii)

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