APACHE COUNTY — The people of the Navajo Nation have been struggling with a lack of adequate housing for many years while the Navajo Housing Authority has been sitting on top of a large pile of cash.
That’s one of the findings of a recent investigative series published by the Arizona Republic. Now, the Navajo Nation is looking for ways to reform the agency that has been tasked with a challenging job and has suffered under mismanagement and corruption.
According to the Republic, the Navajo Housing Authority is currently sitting on a $234 million surplus, funds accumulated from annual U.S. Housing and Urban Development block grants to the tribe for housing, which has remained unspent.
Despite studies that document the need for more than 30,000 new homes on the reservation, in the past nine years less than 800 new houses have been built. Millions have been spent on housing which was never occupied and was later bulldozed. An annual administrative budget of about $16 million was reported in 2016.
The Navajo Times reported Feb. 9 that Peterson Zah, a former Navajo Nation president and executive staff assistant received more than $342,000 from 2013 to 2017 as a consultant to the NHA; former Navajo Nation Council delegate Ervin Keeswood received even more, over $700,000 between 2011 and 2017, for his work as a consultant and advocacy representative.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye issued an order Feb. 10 seeking to reformulate the NHS Commission, reducing it from an eight-member board to a five-member board, and seeking applicants with some experience in housing development, finance, construction, or other related fields. Begaye set a deadline of 120 days for the new commission to be seated.
Begaye also spoke earlier this month on behalf of the Coalition of Large Tribes, which he chairs, about the need for tribes to have greater control over reservation lands, which are held in trust by the federal government for the tribes. Getting permission from multiple layers of federal bureaucracy makes housing development on Navajo lands difficult, NHA staff say.
“We are constantly being reminded that Indian reservations are federal lands and that they do not belong to us. In a sense, we just lease them,” President Begaye told President Trump’s Intergovernmental Affairs Officer Billy Kirkland at a meeting in Washington, D.C., according to the Navajo Nation website. “I disagree. The Navajo Nation is our land and tribal control over tribal lands needs to be redefined.”
Apache County Treasurer Marleita Begay is a member of the NHA Commission serving a four-year term. She joined the commission last year and is a former employee of NHA. She did not respond to a request for comment about the commission.
The new commission members must be approved by the Navajo Nation Council; Apache County District 2 Supervisor Alton Joe Shepherd is a member of the council. He did not respond to a request for comment.