The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development visits the Navajo Housing Authority to determine if federal housing funds have been properly spent on the Arizona reservation.
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The Navajo Housing Authority spent nearly $12 million to build 91 new homes. All but one later were torn down, prompting a financial settlement with federal housing officials. Michael Chow/azcentral.com
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Federal housing funds for Navajos pile up and are squandered while residents of the reservation still suffer from inadequate shelter. Michael Chow/azcentral.com
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Former Navajo Housing Authority head Chester Carl, who was acquitted of bribery and conspiracy charges, talks about the allegations. Michael Chow/azcentral.com
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Members of Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation say the tribal housing authority pays careful attention to the housing needs of its citizens. Michael Chow/azcentral.com
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Navajo housing review by HUD
90 new homes in Shiprock torn down
Navajo housing funds pile up, are squandered
Former NHA chief: Not bribery, just helping a friend
How the Cherokee Nation spends its federal housing funds
President Russell Begaye blasts Navajo Housing Authority spending on travel as ‘reckless’ and ‘wasteful’
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and other leaders have issued a joint letter calling for the tribal housing agency’s top managers to resign or face removal, but a spokeswoman for the Navajo Housing Authority said the letter was never officially received and the president’s demands were not immediately clear.
The missive from Begaye, Tribal Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates and Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd requests the “resignation and/or removal of the managing officers” at the NHA. It alleges that the Housing Authority board has demonstrated “complete and blatant disregard for the Nation and its people” through extravagant spending on travel.
The letter, dated April 13, does not indicate which managers are being asked to quit, or how removal would occur if they refuse.
Nevertheless, six NHA commissioners responded Thursday with a scathing rebuttal that says the president’s request is “completely out of line, outrageous and simply wrong.”
The conflict comes just four months after an Arizona Republic series described nearly two decades of failed projects, mismanagement, fraud and other financial issues at the NHA. The Navajo Nation has received $1.66 billion in federal tax dollars for housing since 1998, yet records show few homes have been built, completed projects were abandoned, and NHA accumulated an unspent backlog of nearly $500 million.
In the aftermath of that report, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials visited the tribe last month to investigate.
Meanwhile, criticism of the NHA swelled within the tribe. In February, Begaye signed legislation requiring the agency’s eightcommissioners be replaced by a board of five members who must meet new qualification standards. That measure includes a screening and appointment process, and calls for the new board to be seated by mid-June.
It was not immediately clear how the exchange of letters may relate to that legislation. But, Begaye on Thursday said 40 applicants have submitted letters, and “we are expediting processing so they (appointees) can begin their service as early as next week.”
Abbie Fink, an NHA spokeswoman, said confusion is compounded because Housing Authority administrators “have not officially received the letter” or other communication from Begaye’s office. Fink said her bosses learned of the correspondence indirectly on Monday and issued a statement.
That statement did not address whether NHA’s managers intend to step down, nor did it respond to allegation in the letter of “wasteful misappropriation” of funds. Instead, it stressed the agency’s dedication to providing “quality, safe and affordable housing” to tribal members.
Mihio Manus, a spokesman for Begaye, insisted that the letter requesting resignations “definitely was sent” to the NHA. He declined to say what steps would be taken if NHA officials ignored or rejected the request.
“The Office of the President and Vice President does have plans in place to address the issue,” Manus added. “This is just the first step. We will be addressing details within a week.”
The letter calling for NHA resignations or removals did not mention NHA failures outlined in Republic reports. Instead, it focused solely on the agency’s “extravagant use of discretionary funds” to send board members and employees to seminars. That criticism was spawned, at least in part, by attendance last year at a National American Indian Housing Council conference in Hawaii.
The letter said “reckless” spending has created distrust and anger among tribal employees and members, derailing NHA’s mission and causing “a complete lack of confidence” in its leadership.
Discrepancies on housing figures
In a separate news release, Begaye’s office said the NHA, which receives over $80 million annually in HUD funds, completed just 26 new dwellings in 2016 while desperate Navajos wait years to get homes. “We cannot continue building homes this way,” the president said. “Our people are buying and living in storage units. Our existing homes are overcrowded. … This type of treatment of our people must stop.”
The response from NHA board members said more than 500 housing units have been built since 2012, including 119 last year.
“We are offended that Navajo leadership would blatantly criticize our trust without taking the time to discuss with us your concerns,” commissioners wrote. “It is unthinkable that the Navajo leadership would go to the media justifying their defamatory, libelous and unfounded statements before we ever received a copy of the letter.”
In a statement issued later Thursday, Begaye expanded his criticism. He said the NHA had a $301 million surplus last year despite the tribe’s need for 34,000 new dwellings. “That is completely unacceptable to the Navajo Nation and the people living in dilapidated homes,” Begaye said. “It brings serious question to the competency of the staff. If this competency is not there, then like any company out there, these people should be replaced.”
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