- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 28, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The chief executive of the largest American Indian public housing authority in the U.S. will be stepping down as the Navajo Nation looks to rebuild its reputation after concerns were raised about the lack of housing on the vast reservation.

Newly appointed members of the board that oversees the Navajo Housing Authority made the announcement Wednesday. Aneva Yazzie’s last day will be Friday.

The board said it was a mutual decision and that Yazzie’s departure will mark the first step in rebuilding the organization.

“Moving forward, NHA must first restore trust with the people we serve by promoting transparency, communication, efficiency and accountability,” the board said in a statement. “Part of that process includes looking at NHA as a whole and determining a new direction based on the needs of the Navajo people and communities on the Navajo Nation.”

The move follows about four weeks of the board reviewing the housing authority’s financial records and talking with Yazzie, other staff and a number of the tribe’s elected officials.

Navajo housing officials in recent weeks have defended themselves against accusations that they overspent millions of dollars in federal grant funds. The allegations spurred a congressional investigation, but federal regulators have found no evidence of fraud or other criminal conduct.

According to the findings of an investigation by U.S. Sen. John McCain’s office and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, the housing authority over 10 years received more than $803 million in federal block grant funding and built only 1,110 homes.

The inquiry was triggered by an investigative series published by The Arizona Republic beginning in December. The newspaper reported that the tribal agency at one point built up an unspent reserve of nearly $500 million and while few homes were built, key projects that did get built were never occupied or had severe problems.

The new board members and other officials with the housing authority have disputed some of the allegations, noting that the federal funding was not solely for the completion of new homes as the calculations suggested. They said the money also covered ongoing projects, the modernization of nearly 880 older homes over a four-year period along with infrastructure projects, land acquisitions, maintenance of existing homes and rentals and the construction of group homes and other community resource centers.

Yazzie, in a recent interview, said the unspent reserve was the product of the many challenges to building on the reservation, from the lack of basic utilities to complicated land ownership issues, engineering issues and the sheer size of the reservation.

The Navajo Nation spans more than 27,000 acres in parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, and the challenges have been well documented in recent years by federal housing officials and investigators with the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The tribe also is plagued by high unemployment and poverty rates as well as a lack of infrastructure, from roads to internet connectivity.

Despite the accusations, Yazzie said the tribe has never exceeded the spending limits imposed each year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on new construction and modernization projects. The housing authority averages about $213,000 per new home, she said.

Still, Navajo officials acknowledge that major changes need to be made to meet the tribe’s housing demands. Yazzie pegged that need at about 50,000 units, much higher than was estimated just five years ago.

“We’re here to own the problems that we do have. We do need to build more houses. We know that and we’re excited to take that challenge on,” board member Kris Beecher said in an interview. “It is a big process to take on.”

Beecher and other board members said the goal is to provide housing for those tribal members who need it most, but they also have a vision that includes different tiers of housing.

“That in itself can bolster economic development. It can bolster the ability for us to bring good educators back to the reservation, to bring our own educated people back to the reservation,” Beecher said. “Housing plays such a crucial role. To fix all these other issues we have, you have to have good housing.”

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