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Navajo Nation announces $50M contract with Mesa-based ZenniHome to help meet housing demand

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Sounds of heavy machinery inside the bustling 40,000-square-foot ZenniHome facility in Page suddenly fell silent once President Buu Nygren of the Navajo Nation was introduced. Last Friday, the Navajo Nation announced a $50 million contract to construct 200 free homes for Navajos in dire need.

Nygren made a grand entrance, shaking the hands of some 135 Navajo employees, who once worked at the largest coal plant west of the Mississippi River — the Navajo Generating Station — before it closed in 2019.

As many as 1,000 jobs were lost. That hurt the Navajo Nation, which was already facing an acute unemployment rate that sits at 56% today. During his inaugural State of the Navajo Nation address in January, Nygren expressed that “our goal for ZenniHome is to restore the jobs lost from the NGS closure.”

Now, some of those former NGS employees are finally going back to work, but this time for ZenniHome, and ready to build badly needed homes with federal funds from the American Rescue Plan.

Nygren even acknowledged that ZenniHome took a gamble by locating the plant in Page.

“I want to say thank you. Even though you’ve been set up here for over a year, you haven’t got one single contract with the Navajo Nation,” said Nygren. “And that’s what I call heart and dedication to serve our people.”

ZenniHome aims to hire hundreds more Navajos once it adds an adjacent 300,000-square-foot facility.

“And you mean it. And on top of that, you have our business here,” Nygren added. “You’ve revamped what NGS used to do. And I look forward to the expansions next door, so we can meet that demand of over 7,000 homes a year, and be the most productive modular facility in North America.”

This partnership between the Navajo Nation and Mesa-based company is meant kickstart mass-scale manufacturing to meet a severe housing demand on the reservation and help Page bounce back following the shutdown of the Navajo Generating Station.

Nygren says their dream is eventually become an exporter of these steel and portable homes that can be strapped to flatbeds, both in and out of Indian Country.

And even generate tax revenue.

“Made on Navajo, made by Navajo, is going to mean something very soon, because that’s what we can all be proud of,” said Nygren. “And that’s what they’re going to be saying all across America.”

LeChee Chapter President JoAnne Yazzie-Pioche was among those in attendance. She represents Navajos living around the ZenniHome facility from Page to Kaibito.

“People will never make the money they made at NGS. However, as long as our people are working and the work will be done, I think it’s a plus,” said Yazzie-Pioche. “They need to build these homes. They're gonna outlast the mobile homes that are being bought.”

Their current facility has the capacity to build about three homes each day, but with that additional space, the goal is to construct up to 30 a day.

“We have to retool these fantastic workers into another trade,” said former Republican state Sen. Bob Worsley, the founder of ZenniHome, adding that this site is primed to become “a great economic center for the Southwest, right here on the Navajo Nation.”

“We’re happy to see this 1,000 acres become very clean, environmentally friendly, consistent with Mother Earth, because Mother Earth is our home, right, in the Navajo tradition,” Worsley elaborated. “She’s our home, and we're going to build homes from this location that used to be a coal plant.”

Recovered materials were shipped off to Nucor Steel in Plymouth, Utah.

“That steel got recycled into the steel market,” Worsley explained, “so we theoretically see 6,500 homes coming from the literal steel structure of the coal plant that used to be here.”

Tamarah Begay and her team at the Albuquerque-based Indigenous Design Studio and Architecture are tasked with “‘Navajo-izing’ the units,” as she puts it.

That process is to practically and aesthetically design modular homes with Indigenous input from the foundation up. Begay began her architectural company in an attempt to connect culture, language and tradition through design, and to collaborate creatively.

“We don't do that now,” admitted Begay. “We see a lot of architects coming in, giving us designs, the way that we should live, the way that we should live with our HUD homes.”

One of those uniquely Navajo-inspired features is ensuring these homes are compatible with wood and pellet stoves. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly two-thirds of reservation homes are heated by them.

“We want to make sure that if that happens, these units are all code to code,” Begay added. “You can tie in your wood stove as well as pellet stoves.”

All of them are ADA compliant, able to connect to solar panels and possess Wi-Fi compatibility. Space and storage are other concerns Begay cited, since widespread overcrowding in existing smaller, multi-generational homes is another problem.

Construction, coupled with shipping and freight costs, have also spiked on the reservation.

Despite the financial obstacles, Begay says Navajos, like herself, still deserve “homes that are durable, affordable, sustainable, and that represent our culture and our identity.”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.