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Highlights

What GAO Found

Indian tribes and tribally designated housing entities face both external and internal challenges in carrying out affordable housing activities under the Indian Housing Block Grant (IHBG) program, which was authorized by the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA). The most commonly identified external challenges included the often remote location of tribal lands and lack of infrastructure such as running water and sewer systems. Meeting these challenges can significantly increase development costs. For example, one Arizona tribe saw its costs double because materials had to be brought in by helicopter. Tribes also identified differing federal agency requirements, particularly for environmental reviews, as a challenge that delayed projects and increased costs when IHBG and other funds were combined. Further, tribes were concerned that recent changes in federally authorized training and technical assistance could reduce their quality and frequency, in part because of the reduced role of a longstanding provider. The most commonly identified internal challenges were recipients' limited administrative capacity, conflicts within tribes that impact housing priorities and planning, and cultural preferences for certain types of housing. The Navajo Nation's housing entity, the largest IHBG recipient, has experienced all of these challenges and had a backlog of nearly $500 million in unspent IHBG funds, which it has begun to address.

Opportunities exist to support tribes' affordable housing efforts. First, a federal infrastructure task force focused on facilitating tribes' water and wastewater projects has recommended that participating agencies, including Housing and Urban Development (HUD), develop a coordinated environmental review process to address the issue of inefficient and costly multiple reviews. A similarly coordinated process specific to tribal housing would help tribes to plan and build affordable housing more quickly and efficiently. Until such an effort is developed and implemented, tribes will continue to lose valuable time and spend IHBG resources completing overlapping reviews. Second, HUD instituted new training and technical assistance procedures according to revised language in the NAHASDA appropriation legislation, which changed the way that HUD makes funds available to provider organizations. HUD has solicited feedback from tribes that have received training and technical assistance under the new system, but opportunities remain to reach out to tribes that have not used the new system and remain concerned that their needs will not be met. Third, IHBG recipients could also benefit from having HUD disseminate promising approaches that other tribes have used to address housing challenges. In May 2013, HUD recognized 22 tribes that were incorporating resource-efficient elements into their affordable housing projects. However, HUD has not shared promising housing practices more generally across tribes in a way that would make them easily accessible. Information about successful approaches could help tribes use their IHBG funding in the most efficient and effective ways to provide affordable housing in their communities.

Why GAO Did This Study

More than 570 federally and state- recognized Indian tribes receive about $667 million in housing assistance annually under the IHBG program. The IHBG program recognizes the tribes' right to self-determination and self-governance in addressing their affordable housing needs. Conference Report 112-284 mandates that GAO study tribal housing challenges. Building on past work that raised discussion about some challenges, this report examines common housing challenges tribes face and actions that could address them. GAO interviewed HUD and other agencies, a tribal advocacy group, and 23 tribal entities that were selected using input from HUD and other factors such as tribe funding, and conducted two site visits where challenges appeared to be unique.

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Recommendations

Agencies involved in Native American housing should develop and implement a coordinated environmental review process. HUD should also seek input from all tribes about the new training and technical assistance procedures. Finally, HUD should share promising housing approaches among tribes. The agencies generally agreed with GAO's recommendations, but HUD disagreed with the recommendation about creating a feedback mechanism because it said it already had one. However, HUD's existing mechanism does not include outreach to tribes that have yet to use the new procedures.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture 1. To increase consistency and reduce time and predevelopment cost for NAHASDA grant recipients, an interagency effort similar to that of the federal infrastructure task force but specific to tribal housing should be initiated with participants from the Indian Health Service, HUD, Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop and implement a coordinated environmental review process for all agencies overseeing tribal housing development. In addition, the agencies should determine if it would be appropriate to designate a lead agency in this effort.
Open
In September 2017, HUD provided us with documentation that an interagency Coordinated Environmental Review Process Workgroup was formed and included representatives from HUD, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), USDA, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, HHS, Interior, and the Department of Transportation. The workgroup focused on identifying measures that could be taken to coordinate agencies' environmental review processes within the existing framework, and in December 2015, presented 12 recommendations in a final report. The recommendations included developing common categorical exclusions; providing training for agency staff and tribes; continuing review of related environmental laws and authorities to identify opportunities for greater efficiencies; creating regional consortiums; and establishing an ongoing environmental review interagency workgroup. In addition, the workgroup developed a draft implementation plan, and drafted a Memorandum of Understanding whose stated purpose is "to further the shared goals of the parties to ensure comprehensive NEPA environmental reviews while facilitating access to federal assistance for housing and housing-related infrastructure projects in Indian Country involving multiple agencies by avoiding duplication of analyses and ensuring efficient environmental review processes for both tribes and agencies". In December 2018, HHS notified GAO that the final draft implementation plan remained under review by members of the interagency workgroup. HUD and GAO will meet in April 2020 to discuss the status of the workgroup's implementation plan. On July 29, 2020, HUD informed us that the MOU and implementation plan were close to being finalized before new CEQ NEPA rules were finalized on July 16, 2020. According to HUD, the new NEPA rules would delay the workgroup's efforts as each participating agency and the workgroup would need to incorporate them and define new policies. Given the time required to do this, the workgroup's revised MOU and implementation plan would not be finalized in fiscal year 2020. Since HUD is the lead agency for the workgroup, this update also applies to USDA, Interior, and the Indian Health Service.
Indian Health Service 2. To increase consistency and reduce time and predevelopment cost for NAHASDA grant recipients, an interagency effort similar to that of the federal infrastructure task force but specific to tribal housing should be initiated with participants from the Indian Health Service, HUD, Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop and implement a coordinated environmental review process for all agencies overseeing tribal housing development. In addition, the agencies should determine if it would be appropriate to designate a lead agency in this effort.
Open
In September 2017, HUD provided us with documentation that an interagency Coordinated Environmental Review Process Workgroup was formed and included representatives from HUD, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), USDA, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, HHS, Interior, and the Department of Transportation. The workgroup focused on identifying measures that could be taken to coordinate agencies' environmental review processes within the existing framework, and in December 2015, presented 12 recommendations in a final report. The recommendations included developing common categorical exclusions; providing training for agency staff and tribes; continuing review of related environmental laws and authorities to identify opportunities for greater efficiencies; creating regional consortiums; and establishing an ongoing environmental review interagency workgroup. In addition, the workgroup developed a draft implementation plan, and drafted a Memorandum of Understanding whose stated purpose is "to further the shared goals of the parties to ensure comprehensive NEPA environmental reviews while facilitating access to federal assistance for housing and housing-related infrastructure projects in Indian Country involving multiple agencies by avoiding duplication of analyses and ensuring efficient environmental review processes for both tribes and agencies". In December 2018, HHS notified GAO that the final draft implementation plan remained under review by members of the interagency workgroup. According to IHS, the agency is in communication with HUD on this matter. On July 29, 2020, HUD informed us that the MOU and implementation plan were close to being finalized before new CEQ NEPA rules were finalized on July 16, 2020. According to HUD, the new NEPA rules would delay the workgroup's efforts as each participating agency and the workgroup would need to incorporate them and define new policies. Given the time required to do this, the workgroup's revised MOU and implementation plan would not be finalized in fiscal year 2020. Since HUD is the lead agency for the workgroup, this update also applies to USDA, Interior, and IHS. On September 25, 2020, IHS provided a status update by email, which indicated that the recommendation should remain open.
Department of Housing and Urban Development 3. To increase consistency and reduce time and predevelopment cost for NAHASDA grant recipients, an interagency effort similar to that of the federal infrastructure task force but specific to tribal housing should be initiated with participants from the Indian Health Service, HUD, Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop and implement a coordinated environmental review process for all agencies overseeing tribal housing development. In addition, the agencies should determine if it would be appropriate to designate a lead agency in this effort.
Open
In September 2017, HUD provided us with documentation that an interagency Coordinated Environmental Review Process Workgroup was formed and included representatives from HUD, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), USDA, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, HHS, Interior, and the Department of Transportation. The workgroup focused on identifying measures that could be taken to coordinate agencies' environmental review processes within the existing framework, and in December 2015, presented 12 recommendations in a final report. The recommendations included developing common categorical exclusions; providing training for agency staff and tribes; continuing review of related environmental laws and authorities to identify opportunities for greater efficiencies; creating regional consortiums; and establishing an ongoing environmental review interagency workgroup. In addition, the workgroup developed a draft implementation plan, and drafted a Memorandum of Understanding whose stated purpose is "to further the shared goals of the parties to ensure comprehensive NEPA environmental reviews while facilitating access to federal assistance for housing and housing-related infrastructure projects in Indian Country involving multiple agencies by avoiding duplication of analyses and ensuring efficient environmental review processes for both tribes and agencies". In December 2018, HHS notified GAO that the final draft implementation plan remained under review by members of the interagency workgroup. On July 29, 2020, HUD informed us that the MOU and implementation plan were close to being finalized before new CEQ NEPA rules were finalized on July 16, 2020. According to HUD, the new NEPA rules would delay the workgroup's efforts as each participating agency and the workgroup would need to incorporate them and define new policies. Given the time required to do this, the workgroup's revised MOU and implementation plan would not be finalized in fiscal year 2020. Since HUD is the lead agency for the workgroup, this update also applies to USDA, Interior, and the Indian Health Service.
Department of the Interior 4. To increase consistency and reduce time and predevelopment cost for NAHASDA grant recipients, an interagency effort similar to that of the federal infrastructure task force but specific to tribal housing should be initiated with participants from the Indian Health Service, HUD, Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop and implement a coordinated environmental review process for all agencies overseeing tribal housing development. In addition, the agencies should determine if it would be appropriate to designate a lead agency in this effort.
Open
In September 2017, HUD provided us with documentation that an interagency Coordinated Environmental Review Process Workgroup was formed and included representatives from HUD, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), USDA, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, HHS, Interior, and the Department of Transportation. The workgroup focused on identifying measures that could be taken to coordinate agencies' environmental review processes within the existing framework, and in December 2015, presented 12 recommendations in a final report. The recommendations included developing common categorical exclusions; providing training for agency staff and tribes; continuing review of related environmental laws and authorities to identify opportunities for greater efficiencies; creating regional consortiums; and establishing an ongoing environmental review interagency workgroup. In addition, the workgroup developed a draft implementation plan, and drafted a Memorandum of Understanding whose stated purpose is "to further the shared goals of the parties to ensure comprehensive NEPA environmental reviews while facilitating access to federal assistance for housing and housing-related infrastructure projects in Indian Country involving multiple agencies by avoiding duplication of analyses and ensuring efficient environmental review processes for both tribes and agencies". In December 2018, HHS notified GAO that the final draft implementation plan remained under review by members of the interagency workgroup. HUD and GAO will meet in April 2020 to discuss the status of the workgroup's implementation plan. On July 29, 2020, HUD informed us that the MOU and implementation plan were close to being finalized before new CEQ NEPA rules were finalized on July 16, 2020. According to HUD, the new NEPA rules would delay the workgroup's efforts as each participating agency and the workgroup would need to incorporate them and define new policies. Given the time required to do this, the workgroup's revised MOU and implementation plan would not be finalized in fiscal year 2020. Since HUD is the lead agency for the workgroup, this update also applies to USDA, Interior, and the Indian Health Service.
Office of Native American Programs 5. To better ensure that NAHASDA grant recipients receive adequate training, technical assistance, and support, as the Office of Native American Programs (ONAP) finalizes new training and technical assistance procedures for NAHASDA grant recipients, ONAP should expand its existing mechanism to seek and incorporate feedback and input from all recipients, including input from recipients that have not yet used the new procedures, in order to better ensure that its training and technical assistance procedures meet recipients' needs.
Closed - Implemented
In June 2015, HUD provided GAO with documentation of outreach activities that took place across its six Office of Native American Programs (ONAP) regions in 2014 and 2015. For example, HUD's Southern Plains ONAP began including a solicitation for input on future training and technical assistance in all emails it sent to Indian Housing Block Grant (IHBG) recipients. In Alaska, ONAP staff held briefings with a selected training and technical assistance contractor where IHBG recipients could share information to aid the contractor in providing services to them. In other regions, ONAP staff used various forums to solicit recipients' feedback on the new process for requesting training and technical assistance. We believe that these activities collectively respond to our recommendation and should provide adequate opportunities for tribes with concerns about HUD's new procedures to have their concerns addressed.
Office of Native American Programs 6. To better ensure that NAHASDA grant recipients receive adequate training, technical assistance, and support, ONAP should collect and disseminate promising approaches that recipients have used to address housing challenges.
Closed - Implemented
In June 2015, HUD informed us that as of May 7, 2015, it had added a Best Practices component to its Office of Native American Programs (ONAP) website. Through the ONAP website, HUD has made available resources for tribal leaders, housing officials, Native American homebuyers, and lenders. In the new component, best practice examples are provided by region and by activity type--meaning infrastructure, homeownership, public facilities, and rental housing. Each example includes a project summary and photos. Because the site also contains a national directory of tribes and TDHEs, IHBG recipients can contact those offering best practice examples and determine if similar approaches would be feasible for them to pursue. We believe that this action by HUD responds to our recommendation and will help ensure that tribes have a forum for sharing ideas on housing development and overcoming housing challenges.

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