After July 31, an affordable housing agreement for Navajo students at the University of New Mexico’s Rainforest building will end, leaving 118 residents of the downtown apartment complex looking for alternative — and undoubtedly more expensive — accommodations.
Former Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye signed an agreement on Jan. 3, 2018 that provided housing for Navajo students on the fifth and sixth floors of the Rainforest building at a discounted rate of $945, or $189 a month, per fall and spring semester.
Since the Navajo Nation decided not to renew the agreement, it will end after its originally scheduled end date this summer.
“(The Navajo Nation has) indicated that they are not going to renew that occupancy down there … We would love to continue with the agreement and continue to house that population of students,” Thomas M. Neale, director of real estate at UNM, said. “We were really excited about that prospect at the outset and continue to be so, but for reasons I’m not 100% clear on, they've decided to terminate that agreement.”
A source close to the Navajo Nation administration said that since many Navajo students returned home rather than continue living at the Rainforest building during the pandemic, a contract renewal would be cost-prohibitive.
The housing deal, which was struck in 2018 at a cost of $1,457,300 for a period of three years and seven months, included provisions that Navajo students’ $189 rent would go back to the Navajo Nation rather than UNM.
According to residents, the decision not to renew the agreement and thus end the UNM Navajo Nation Living Learning Community (LLC) was announced through an email to residents of the LLC on Dec. 17 of last year. On UNM’s housing website, the Navajo Nation LLC has been removed from the list of the “Living Learning Communities” they offer on campus.
The Daily Lobo reached out to Jared Touchin, the communications director for the Office of the President and Vice President of the Navajo Nation, for more information. However, when asked for clarification on why a renewal was not pursued or what other options these students have, he declined to comment.
Residents of the Navajo Nation LLC were saddened by the announcement of the housing agreement’s termination because of the benefit it brought to Navajo students.
“It was kind of sad at the time,” Jaida Smith, a UNM senior, Navajo student and resident of the Navajo Nation LLC, said. “I know it’s something that a lot of people depend on, and it's a community where people can gather. But some things end, some people change their minds and it’s just something that kind of just has to happen.”
The inability of some Navajo students to pay for and find affordable housing was an issue that the Navajo Nation had in mind when the LLC first opened in 2018. Now that the LLC is closing its doors, some students worry about where they’ll live now and how they’ll juggle the cost of school with the cost of housing.
“It sucks because I have friends who live here, and they’re going to have to start getting more money to pay for their housing,” Orion Martinez, a junior UNM student and resident of the Navajo Nation LLC, said. “I think it was a really good opportunity for us to be able to not put so much stress on our housing costs. That’s the thing being taken away — so that’s just going to cause a bit of a concern about, if this is all they can afford at the moment, where are they going to go next?”
While discounted housing rates were an important selling point to residents, Smith and Martinez also shared the sentiment that the community aspect of the Navajo Nation LLC was significant as well. Current Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who was vice president when the housing agreement was reached, concurred in a statement at the time.
“With the purchase of the Lobo Rainforest Facility, not only will we see costs decrease for our college students' housing, but we’ll create a sense of community to ultimately increase retention and decrease the college dropout rate,” Nez said in 2018.
Smith said learning about the UNM Navajo community at the Rainforest and their traditions was a central part of her college experience.
“We all identify ourselves as Indigenous people, but it’s just interesting to learn about specific traditions that people have,” Smith said.
The Daily Lobo also reached out to the Dean of Students office and Residence Life and Student Housing management, who also declined to comment and re-directed reporters back to Neale.
According to Neale, there are currently no plans for a new Navajo Nation LLC or another similar housing provision for Navajo Nation students. However, he said that UNM is more than willing to work with the Navajo Nation on future projects.
“Sure, I think we would be open to anything,” Neale said. “We love having the students there, and we think that our housing group provides a great environment for those students and would love to continue to work with the Navajo Nation.”
Hannah John is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @yesitshannahj
Shelby Kleinhans is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BirdsNotReal99