Residents of northwestern New Mexico may by now be numbed by the almost surreal, ongoing saga of the busted housing development in Shiprock. But to those unfamiliar with the tale, it's downright heartbreaking. "Navajo housing project could waste millions," reads the headline in the Farmington Daily Times, and "be forever incomplete." The story opens:
SHIPROCK — Almost a decade has passed since millions of dollars were invested to build 90 homes at the south end of Shiprock. Today, most sit empty, seriously damaged by weather and vandalism.
Little is left of their windows, their walls, or their interiors. Inside, the floors are littered with glass, the walls painted with graffiti.
All of them are broken and more than a dozen completely burned to the ground.
The bedraggled development's story, which stretches back nine years, highlights the sorry state of housing on the Navajo Nation in general. It also reveals how vulnerable the system meant to fix the problem has been to scandal and corruption.
In 2004, Shiprock Nonprofit Housing and Development Corporation, with the help of Nevada-based Lodgebuilder as a subcontractor, set out to build 91 homes with funds from the Navajo Housing Authority. The homes were intended to make up for a shortage of quality homes for Navajos in northwestern New Mexico, and they were being built at standards well above those of the older style of government housing. But in late 2006, Lodgebuilder's owner, William Aubrey, was accused of embezzling funds and bribing the then-CEO of the Navajo Housing Authority, Chester Carl (Carl resigned in Oct. 2006, and both were later indicted by a federal grand jury).
The NHA quickly shut the Shiprock project down -- after spending a reported $11 million on it -- citing the accusations against Lodgebuilder. At the time the organization said the project would be restarted when a replacement contractor was found. Months passed and then years, and the houses continued to decay and be victimized by vandals. Over the years, the Daily Times continued to chronicle the perpetually stalled project until, last year, a solution seemed to be at hand: The Housing Authority would take over and finish the project itself at an estimated cost of $17 million. But again, nothing happened.
The West's suburbs and exurbs, it's true, are littered with this sort of half-built housing developments in these post-housing bust days. Those sprawling out from Phoenix or Las Vegas were built just because there was so much easy money going around, but the Shiprock project, and others like it, were and are desperately needed.
A 2011 report commissioned by the NHA and put together by RPI Consulting details the dire housing situation on the Navajo Nation. The assessment found that nearly 60 percent of the Nation's residents live in houses that are considered dilapidated or in need of major repair. Only five percent of Americans, as a whole, live in such conditions. Between 33 and 55 percent of Navajo Nation homes are considered overcrowded and at least 30 percent have incomplete bathroom or kitchen facilities. To transform "the Navajo housing stock from its current condition to an overall satisfactory level for every citizen living on the Navajo Reservation will cost between $7.9 and $8.9 billion dollars," the report concludes.
It's tough to imagine where that cash will come from when deep cuts to the programs that would fund this work will almost certainly happen under sequestration. And money's not the only barrier: The Shiprock project is one of several that still holds the taint of the Lodgebuilder scandal; other projects have also been mired in controversy over the years.
That's not to say that the bigger picture is as hopeless as the one in Shiprock appears. Last year, according to the NHA's annual performance report, it completed 126 units of housing that will be owned by the residents, plus dozens more rentals and repairs across the Navajo Nation. Last year, a group of nonprofits on the reservation banded together to address the housing crisis. And outside organizations, such as Arizona State University's Stardust Center, DesignBuildBluff and Red Feather Development Group have spearheaded housing projects on the reservation.
That's all small comfort, though, to those who had once hoped to move into the Shiprock homes. They can't do much but wait.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor for High Country News.