Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Narragansett Tribe To Use Federal Stimulus Money For Housing

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This installment of The Tribes In The Media is a Providence Journal article describing how the Narragansett Indians will spend federal stimulus money that it received for housing.

CHARLESTOWN — The Narragansett Indians will use federal stimulus money to revive an 18-year-old dream: to provide housing for the tribe’s poor and elderly.

In 1991, the tribe bought 31 acres off Kings Factory Road for a 50-home development near Route 1. Soon after, however, it clashed with state and local officials over zoning laws and permits. The legal wrangling went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

Now the tribe plans to spend $2 million to remodel what’s left of the project — a dozen derelict homes, said Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas, leader of the 2,400-member tribe.

“It sounds like a lot of money,” but the houses — empty for years — must be gutted, he said. “The council has to bring them up to code and make them green if possible.” Some money will be spent on landscaping, sewers and to hire an architect. “It’s almost like starting from scratch,” said Thomas.

The project dates to 1988, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the tribe $4.1 million to build 50 houses. Three years later, the Narragansetts paid about $525,000 for 31 acres in Charlestown.

But work on the project stopped after state and local officials said the tribe failed to get building permits and zoning approval. Tribal leaders argued they did not need permission because the land is sovereign territory and exempt from state and local law.

The tribe tried to expand control over its land through Congress and the courts. In 1998, the Interior Department, at the request of the tribe, agreed to take the 31 acres into trust, a move that would have removed the lot from local and state jurisdiction.

But state and local officials –– worried the tribe would build a casino or other tax-free enterprise on the site –– fought the action in court.

Also, some Narragansetts charged the tribe’s housing authority with mismanagement. In 1999, a federal auditor criticized the tribe for failing to account for how some of the HUD money was spent, and for failing to build any homes for occupancy.

The tribe prevailed in U.S. District Court and the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in its fight with Charlestown and the state.

But in February, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the appeal. The high court said the Department of Interior cannot place the land in trust for the tribe because the Narragansetts were not under federal jurisdiction when Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. The Narragansetts gained federal recognition in 1983.

Narragansett and other Native American leaders say they will appeal the decision in Congress and elsewhere.

The decision ignores the tribe’s history, namely that state leaders illegally disbanded the tribe in 1880 and seized its lands, Thomas said.

Meanwhile, the tribe plans to seek “whatever” permits are needed to renovate the houses, Thomas said.

“We will comply” with zoning and other laws, he said. “We would like nothing better than to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the site. Then we can get rid of this rumor that we plan to build a casino there.”

In the last 18 years, some of the seniors on a waiting list for a home have died, Thomas said.

HUD last week said it will award $312 million to 61 Native American and Native Alaskan communities. The money will be used to help tribes revitalize neighborhoods, promote energy efficiency and create jobs, said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan.

The Narragansetts are one of only two New England tribes to receive help through the latest round of stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, created by President Obama to strengthen the nation’s ailing economy.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts will also get $2 million.

The money, awarded though two programs — the Native American Housing Block Grant and the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act — can be used to purchase land, build new homes or rehabilitate existing housing by adding new roofs, plumbing and electrical systems. The money can also be used to build roads and water and sewer facilities.