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UNM, Navajo Nation strike deal for student housing

President of the Navajo Nation Russell Begaye, left, and Vice President Jonathan Nez celebrate after hanging the Navajo Nation flag in the student lobby of the sixth floor of the UNM Rainforest apartments after the announcement Friday of the partnership between the school and the Navajo Nation for housing of 118 Navajo students. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There is no word for rainforest in the Navajo language, but Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez says it is probably time.

More than 100 Navajo students will have affordable access to the housing at the University of New Mexico’s Lobo Rainforest through a new partnership between the tribe and the state’s largest university.

Navajo Nation and university leaders on Friday announced the tribe would help up to 118 students cover rent at the apartment-style residence hall at Innovate ABQ in Downtown Albuquerque. It’s the first such partnership for the Navajo Nation, which aims to expand the program to other colleges and universities to prevent housing costs from derailing students’ educational goals.

Navajo students can get scholarships for tuition, but officials say many struggle with living expenses. They report some have resorted to couch surfing or even living in cars. Karis Begaye, who spearheaded the project as legal counsel in the Navajo Nation’s Office of the President and Vice President, said housing-related financial hardships compel some to drop out.

“We can give them all the scholarships for tuition, but if they don’t have a place to stay or they don’t have a place to study, it makes it very difficult for our students, and some of them have to drop out of school,” she said during a news conference. “This is one way to address that so our students don’t have to worry about anything. All they have to worry about is getting their education, getting their degree and then coming back to the Navajo Nation and helping our people.”

Begaye said she is already in discussions with UNM about a more long-term plan to build an entirely new Navajo residence hall.

Nez called Friday a celebratory occasion and reason to translate rainforest into the tribal language.

“We don’t have a rainforest (on the Navajo Nation),” he joked. “We’ve got to get a Navajo term for that.”

Currently, 232 UNM students self-identify as Navajos, but officials believe there are likely more enrolled.

The agreement with UNM runs through July 31, 2021. The tribe will pay the regular rate for each Rainforest space – currently $650. The first 19 months’ amount to $1,457,300. Students will share some rental costs with the tribe, but the details are still being finalized. They will occupy the six-story building’s top two floors.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye touted the Rainforest for its modern amenities – each two-bedroom unit has a kitchen, washer and dryer – and its ability to cultivate ideas. A centerpiece of the Innovate ABQ site at Broadway and Central, the building has street-level commercial space with tenants like Sandia National Laboratories and Air Force Research Laboratory.

“This environment is an incredible environment,” Russell Begaye said while standing next to a sixth-floor study area. “It’s not just about living here, and having a warm place to stay and (having) a nice facility; it’s more about creating ideas, about coming up with ideas.”

The Rainforest, which debuted in August, struggled to meet residential occupancy goals in the fall with fewer than 100 students for its 300 spots. The regents approved $520,000 in reserves to help cover the university’s lease payment this fiscal year. The Navajo Nation agreement should help ensure the building breaks even by 2019, UNM Real Estate Director Tom Neale said.


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