New law to give tribes lease rights

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New legislation has been passed that will allow tribes, such as Isleta Pueblo, greater self-determination over home ownership and economic development on tribal land.

The Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership Act, or HEARTH, was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Martin Heinrich and first introduced in 2009. It passed in the House of Representatives in May and the Senate in July, both by unanimous vote, and was signed into law July 30 by President Barack Obama.

The act recognizes tribes' sovereign right to determine their own residential and economic growth by allowing them the capacity to pass their own tribal lease laws, rather than rely on lease approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"President Obama understands that by allowing greater tribal control over tribal assets, we encourage economic growth, promote community development in Indian country, and support tribal self-determination," said Jodi Gillette, senior policy advisor for Native American Affairs, in "The White House Blog."

Because tribal land is held in trust by the federal government, it must be leased and can not be bought or sold. The HEARTH Act, which was modeled after the Navajo Nation Trust Land Leasing Act of 2000, will expedite the surface lease approval process on tribal land.

It allows tribal governments to approve trust-land leases directly, rather than waiting for approval from the BIA, according to a press release from Heinrich's office. Surface leases include houses, office buildings, commercial space, educational facilities and agricultural activities. The act will also make it easier for businesses to lease land from the tribes.

"The pueblos, for the last five years or so, have been advocating this legislation," said Isleta Pueblo's First Lt. Gov. Edward Torres. "The HEARTH Act means that Indian families can build homes on tribal lands under tribal laws rather than federal laws.

"The effect of this is that mortgages on Indian lands will close within a matter of weeks instead of a matter of months or years, which is currently the case."

Previously, it could take up to two years for a lease to be approved by the BIA, a problem since most banks wont hold a mortgage approval for that long.

Under HEARTH, tribes now have the sovereign ability to approve surface leases through their own tribal councils. According to the press release, the act does, however, indicate that tribal leasing regulations be consistent with the Interior Department's existing leasing regulations, and must provide for an environmental review process and an opportunity for public comment.

"It's going to make it easier to create jobs in tribal communities, to boost investment and to build more homes all on tribal lands," said Heinrich, adding that where the state lags behind in job creation and investment in housing and economic development is on tribal land.

"This is a great opportunity for New Mexico to improve both our ability to create more jobs but also create more housing stock for our tribal communities."

He said the act reinforces tribal sovereignty and self-determination by putting more control into the hands of tribal councils.

"The HEARTH Act underscores President Obama's commitment to empower Indian nations and strengthen their economies by expanding opportunities for tribal governments," said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in a statement shortly after the signing.

Torres said in the past, many people would become frustrated with the untimeliness of the lease approval process and opt to purchase mobile homes, since they do not require a mortgage. The outcome of that option, he said, is that families end up paying "outrageous" financing interest rates on mobile homes, which can be as high as 20 percent.

"(The Act is) going to help a lot of tribes, and recognize the sovereign right of tribes to enact their own residential and business laws," said Torres. "We know what best what should occur on our lands."


-- Email the author at udavila@news-bulletin.com.