BY LAUREL MORALES -- The Navajo Nation is 27-thousand 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 there are millions of federal dollars earmarked for new homes unspent.
“Some families actually have like three families that live in the same home,” says Kermit Yazzie of the Navajo Housing Authority.
Yazzie shows me around Tuba City, where about 700 Navajo Housing Authority homes have been built over the years. He says the family who will soon get the keys to this 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 is still recovering from a big scandalous mess. 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 that 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,” says Yazzie. “And number two being efficient with the dollars and making sure we were properly planning out these communities.”
She talks by phone from Washington, where she’s rallying members of Congress to support the Navajo Housing Authority and working 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 says.
Complexities like environmental reviews, tax credits and chapter house approval.
“That exacerbates that time frame for timely development,” says Yazzie.
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, says 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. Our codes and policies haven’t been updated to match the type of lifestyle that many Navajo people have nowadays,” says Zah.
HUD authorities weren’t allowed to comment on the pending issue but Aneva Yazzie says it appears one side isn’t talking to the other.
“HUD was very familiar with this whole process. 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,” says Yazzie.
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. 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,” says Yellowman.
A 2011 study showed a need for 34-thousand new homes that will cost about 9 billion dollars to build.