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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Narragansetts receive almost $400K in federal funds to develop affordable housing

Will this spark more hostility between the Tribe and Charlestown town government?
By Will Collette

The ruins of the affordable housing project that spurred the Carcieri
v. Salazar Supreme Court decision. (RI Monthly photo)
On February 18, Trump’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson announced $655 million in Indian Housing Block Grants to tribes across the country.

Carson claimed “…Trump and HUD are committed to providing our Native American Tribes with the tools they need to create better, affordable housing opportunities for their families…”

HUD's accompanying table shows the Narragansett Indian Tribe’s share will be $392,507. At this writing, I do not know what the Tribe’s plans are for the money.

But a couple decades ago, it was an attempt by the Tribe to build senior citizens’ affordable housing that spurred Charlestown to file a lawsuit that eventually morphed into the Carcieri V. Salazar Supreme Court decision, issued on February 24, 2009.

In that decision, written by the Court’s most conservative members at the time – Justices Thomas and Scalia – ruled against the Narragansett. 

That decision used the widely criticized reasoning that Congress was unclear when it passed the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act whether that law would apply to tribes recognized as such by the federal government AFTER 1934, notwithstanding the Constitution’s equal protection under law principle. That decision harmed more than 500 tribes across the US.

So when I read about this new affordable housing grant, I couldn’t help but think, “Here we go again” since Charlestown’s ruling party, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, has the same attitude about the Narragansetts as did those Charlestown plaintiffs who launched the Carcieri case.

That attitude is that the tribe cannot be allowed to exercise its sovereignty by making any land use decisions without the expressed approval of the town. 

Charlestown opposed the Tribe from receiving lands from the state Transportation Department – the “Camp Davis” dispute – as compensation for DOT removal of an ancient Narragansett site under the Route 95 reconstruction in Providence. Charlestown declared the Tribe must first renounce its sovereignty over that land and DOT sided with Charlestown. The Tribe is currently in federal court challenging the "quid pro quo" that they must give up their sovereignty to get the Camp Davis property.

Image result for narragansett & invenergy
Recently, Charlestown’s attitude played out in an unexpected way. In 2017, an official of the Narragansett Tribe signed an agreement with Invenergy, the developers for a proposed fossil fuel plant in Burrillville, to provide cooling water pumped from the aquifer all of us in Charlestown count on for drinking water.

Virtually the entire Charlestown community, including most tribal members, mobilized to fight this bad water deal, leading to the tribal official who signed the deal to rescind it in January 2018

It was great to see Narragansetts and Town residents march and work together. At the time, it almost seemed like an opportunity for long-overdue reconciliation.

Well, almost.

At the final set of hearings, Charlestown brought in its official Indian-fighter, former East Providence mayor Joe Larisa, to testify that the Tribe had no right of sovereignty and thus no right to sell the water in question.

By that point, we (meaning all of us in Charlestown) were winning without having to raise the one issue that is a deal-breaker for any racial reconciliation in Charlestown.

Indeed, it isn’t just the content of Larisa’s remarks that spoiled that prospect but the fact that Larisa has been publicly labelled as a racist by a number of Narragansett elders and leaders.

Despite Larisa’s toxic effect on race relations in Charlestown, the town continues to keep him on a retainer of $2,040 a month, plus additional costs, such as those last November where he racked up charges that took his monthly bill up to $5,422.

Now that there’s $400,000 in federal money in the pot, I hope Charlestown’s leaders will resist the knee jerk reaction to immediately play “circle the wagons” and assume a war position with the Tribe. 

The Narragansetts need affordable housing – even the Trump administration agrees with that – so let’s see if we can work this out as good neighbors.

Here is the full text of the HUD announcement. Go to the table to see which tribes received what amounts.


WASHINGTON - U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson today announced more than $655 million in Indian Housing Block Grants (IHBG) to Native American Tribes in 38 States. Funding is distributed to eligible Tribes and their tribally designated housing entities (TDHEs) to carry out a range of affordable housing activities in their communities.

“President Trump and HUD are committed to providing our Native American Tribes with the tools they need to create better, affordable housing opportunities for their families,” said Secretary Ben Carson. “These grant funds will allow local leaders to build stronger and vibrant communities that drive more economic development.”

“HUD is committed to helping Native Americans thrive and the funding announced today helps them build sustainable communities,” added Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing R. Hunter Kurtz.

Indian Housing Block Grants primarily benefit low-income Native American and Alaska Native families. The amount of each grant is based on a formula that considers local needs and housing units under management by the Tribe or TDHE. Eligible activities for the funds include housing development, operation and modernization of existing housing, housing services to eligible families and individuals, housing management services, crime prevention and safety activities, and model activities that provide creative approaches to solving affordable housing problems in Indian Country.

The final allocation summaries are posted on the ONAP Codetalk website.