Homes on the Navajo Nation. Photo: Quinn Dombrowski
Spending bill includes large infusion of funds for Indian housing

'Very good news' for economic and community development

$1.3 trillion #Omnibus includes numerous boosts for Indian Country
By Kevin Abourezk

The $1.3 trillion spending bill approved by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump last week includes the largest infusion of funds for Indian housing in nearly a decade.

H.R.1625, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, provides an additional $100 million for the Indian Housing Block Grant program. That brings the total allocation to $755 million, the largest amount since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The funding will enable tribes to build new homes and upgrade existing units in order to address overcrowding and inadequate living conditions on their reservations. The bulk of the money, $655 million, is being distributed through a formula-based system, while the remaining $100 million will be subjected to a competitive grant process.

In preparation for the influx of funds, Roberta Roberts, the interim CEO of the Navajo Housing Authority (NHA), is already looking for "construction-ready" and rehabilitation projects. Her agency serves the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the United States.

“NHA has a long list of new construction and rehabilitation projects, and should we secure this targeted funding then we can focus on providing more housing units in our Navajo communities,” Roberts said in a statement on Monday.

“This is very good news and we should immediately send our gratitude to Congress and congratulate the hard work of all the tribes across the country for advocating for an increase in funding,” Roberts said.

The new law, which Trump threatened to veto on Friday before he eventually gave in, isn’t all positive for Indian Country, however.

The bill cuts support for the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s Section 184 Indian Home Loan Guarantee Program from $7 million last year to $1 million. The program, which has grown significantly over the last two decades, helps eligible Native Americans realize the dream of homeownership.

The program is currently supporting more than 4,000 loans worth over $700 million, according to HUD. The $1 million will enable HUD to subsidize up to $270.2 million in loans, according to a report accompanying the spending bill.

But the decrease comes amid potentially big changes. The Trump administration is currently asking tribes about ways to make the program more "accountable."

"Given the growth and maturity of the program, HUD finds it necessary to expand and revise the regulations to meet the program’s growing demands, and to hold participating banks accountable to both tribes and the federal government," according to a document sent to tribal leaders. Meetings are taking place in March and April to solicit input from Indian Country.

Still, other housing and economic development programs saw gains in the #Omnibus. The Indian Community Development Block Grant Program, for example, is growing by $5 million to $65 million. The program provides funds to tribes and Alaska Native communities to use for housing and economic development initiatives, primarily for low- and moderate-income people.

The bill also allocates $55 million, an increase of 23 percent, for tribal land and water settlements. The funds are typically used for infrastructure and development projects that boost economic and employment opportunities on and off reservations.

There's also $9.3 million, an increase of 9 percent, for the Indian loan guarantee program at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The program, which has come under internal scrutiny, helps spur business and job creation with loans to tribes and individual Indian entrepreneurs.

Additionally, the omnibus provides $16 million, an increase of $500,000, for Native Initiatives at the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund. Through monetary awards and training opportunities, the program creates jobs, builds businesses and fosters economic opportunity in Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native communities.

Tribes also stand to see significant increases in funds for grants at the Environmental Protection Agency. The federal spending bill provides $3.56 billion for state and tribal assistance grants, an increase of about $35 million, and requires funds allocated for the Indian Environmental General Assistance Program be made available to tribes for solid waste and recovered materials collection, transportation, backhaul and disposal services.

Over at the Department of Transportation, the Tribal Transportation Program is likely to benefit from a $968 million boost to the Federal-Aid Highways Program, according to the Navajo Nation Washington Office. The program is likely to see a $10 million increase to $485 million because of the increase to the overall program.

The bill also provides $300 million to the previously unfunded Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Projects Program, which provides money for construction and rehabilitation of nationally significant projects on tribal lands.

The Tribal Broadband Deployment Act, which was signed into law last week, will be a real game changer for our rural communities. Check out the video below to see why!

Posted by Congressman Raul Ruiz, MD on Monday, March 26, 2018
Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-California) on Facebook: Tribal Broadband Deployment Act

Elsewhere in terms of development, the spending bill requires the Federal Communications Commission to submit a report to Congress within one year that evaluates broadband coverage in Indian Country. It further directs the agency to develop a new that will address any gaps in coverage through funding, technological resources or other mechanisms.

“It’s going to bring more high-speed broadband internet to tribal lands that are unserved, and the rural communities will also benefit from this infrastructure development,” Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-California) said in a video posted to Facebook on Monday.

Ruiz's legislation, otherwise known as H.R.5007, the Tribal Broadband Deployment Act, became law after being included in the larger omnibus. Tribal advocates said it would help them bridge the digital divide in their communities.

“As recently as 2002, tribal members had to drive three miles down the road just to make a simple phone call – we weren’t even thinking about broadband internet,” said Chairman Steven Estrada of the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians. “Many communities in our region still lack access to broadband and Dr. Ruiz’s bill will help bridge the gap while fulfilling the federal trust responsibility to tribes.”

“This legislation will provide critical data on the lack of broadband infrastructure in Indian Country, which will ensure tribal leaders, Congress, and the Administration have the information they need to finally close the digital divide in Indian Country," added Jacqueline Pata, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal organization in the U.S.

Leaders of the Navajo Nation also applauded additional funds included in the bill for several key programs that benefit the tribe.

The Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation (ONHIR) will remain at the same funding level of $15.43 million. Recently facing closure, ONHIR was established to oversee the relocation of tribal citizens who were affected by a long-running land dispute between the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation.

"The committees remain committed to bringing the relocation process to an orderly conclusion and ensuring all eligible relocatees receive the relocation benefits to which they are entitled," the House and Senate appropriations committees wrote in an accompanying report.

Additionally, the Office of Inspector General of the Interior won't have any funds to audit and investigate ONHIR in the current fiscal year, according to the Navajo Nation Washington Office.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates said fellow delegates lobbied at the federal level for funds to help the tribe.

“My council colleagues have met on numerous occasions to advocate for funding for various initiatives and issues,” he said in a statement on Friday.

January 19, 2018 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - NHA, Rock Springs Chapter celebrate road dedication ROCK SPRINGS, New Mexico....

Posted by Navajo Housing Authority on Friday, January 26, 2018
Navajo Housing Authority on Facebook: New road for housing in New Mexico

The federal spending bill provides a nearly $1.3 million increase for operations and maintenance costs for the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, specifically for the Gallegos Pumping Plant, which does not currently operate at its full capacity due to federal funding shortages over the years.

With regard to housing funds, Bates said the Navajo Nation risked losing millions of dollars for failing to spend its share within a certain time period. The funding bill, though, allows the Navajo Housing Authority to continue its work through September 2022, a provision that applies to other tribes as well.

Bates said the Navajo Nation Council has taken several measures to ensure more accountability for the funds.

Related Stories:
Indian Country sees 'real progress' with $1.3 trillion spending bill (March 26, 2018)
Key committee in House invites tribes to discuss funding priorities (March 26, 2018)
Mark Trahant: Business as usual in D.C. is good for Indian Country (March 26, 2018)
Lawmakers reject Trump cuts with increases for Indian programs (March 22, 2018)
Mark Trahant: Congress faces deadline to pass big spending bill (March 22, 2018)