Bill would streamline housing process on reservations

The Great Falls Tribune

by Ledyard King

WASHINGTON — For decades, Indian tribes trying to expand their limited housing base on reservation land have had to obtain approval for every one of their leasing agreements, including mortgages, from the federal government. The extra layer of red tape has meant delays, sometimes adding years to a process that, for many Americans, takes only weeks.

That’s about to change if several lawmakers have their way. They’ve introduced legislation that would give tribes greater authority, with Interior Department approval, to review and sign off on individual leases.

Relief can’t come soon enough for Montana’s Northern Cheyenne tribe, where only about 20 of the reservation’s roughly 5,000 residents own their homes — and where the waiting list for low-rent tribal housing has more than 300 names. Worse, many Cheyenne have become so disgusted with the long wait that they have bought homes on private land just off the reservation. That’s meant less populationdriven federal aid for a tribe grappling with unemployment that runs as high as 70 percent at times, said Lafe Haugen, housing director for the Northern Cheyenne.

“The people who want to purchase their own home, they look at it and say, ‘Why should I (stay on the reservation)? It might take me a year and a half to two years, and I just don’t want to put up with the headache,’” he said. “It’s cumbersome and some people, they just give up.”

Under federal treaties with Indians, the Interior Department holds tribal land in trust, which allows the land to be protected and managed by the federal government. But ultimate control of the property rests with Interior, and tribes have long complained that the approval of leases to use the land for everything from community development to mineral excavation takes far too long, hurting the economic development of some of the nation’s most impoverished communities.

The measure, known as the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership Act of 2010, or HEARTH Act, would change a 1955 law and give each tribe the opportunity to develop its own land-leasing regulations for housing and commercial development. Once those regulations are approved by Interior, tribes would have the authority to approve individual leases without waiting for federal action.

Congress gave the Navajo Nation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah similar authority in 2000.

“There’s a better way for tribes and tribal members to lease lands that doesn’t take years to get approved,” said Tim Johnson, DS. D., one of four Senate sponsors of the bill introduced last month. “This legislation will allow our tribes to avoid going through a long, bureaucratic process that often slows down the good work being done across Indian Country.”

Twenty-seven lawmakers have signed on to similar legislation in the House. Both bills would pertain only to leases for use on tribally owned land, not for minerals that might be underneath it.

Not all tribes say they’re experiencing long wait times.

As recently as five years ago, it took Oglala Sioux officials on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation anywhere from two to six years just to obtain the federal signoff on the recording of a simple mortgage, said Courtney Two Lance, director of the tribe’s credit and finance program. There wasn’t much sharing of documents or communication with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs when she started her job in 2005, but Two Lance said her office aggressively worked to streamline the process by working with that agency, which comes under the Interior Department.

“The turnaround time now is very quick,” she said. “It’s like within the same week. But that’s only because I take the initiative to learn the process (and) what they require.”

A BIA spokeswoman did not respond to a recent request for comment about the agency’s reaction to the HEARTH Act. But at a House hearing in October, then-BIA Director Jerry Gidner said the Obama administration could support the bill provided there were a few changes, including adding language that protects the federal government from liability in cases where a tribeapproved lease led to financial losses.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said it’s time to act because tribes are being penalized by delays that can take up to two years.

“Housing is a big issue in Indian Country,” he said. “Imagine two years ago what he world was like compared to now. A lot of things change in two years, so it really does put them in an economic bind. This will help strengthen their sovereignty, and it will help promote economic development.”