Army to build 500 rooms for privatized junior enlisted barracks

by Tommy Grant

The Army hopes to begin work on its first privatized barracks building for junior enlisted troops in the next year at Fort Irwin, California, according to the service’s top civilian housing official.

Carla Coulson, a deputy assistant Army secretary overseeing housing and residential partnerships, spoke with Army Times on March 19. She expressed optimism for the Irwin pilot program, but emphasized that privatized barracks are not an economical housing solution at most Army installations.

“At some locations … we could use a privatized barracks solution,” Coulson said. “But it’s not going to work everywhere.”

The housing official said most installations are not a good fit due to a combination of inadequate housing allowance rates, population instability due to deployments, low projected demand, or a lack of suitable land for the project.

By comparison, Fort Irwin, home to the National Training Center, is an ideal place to explore privatized barracks because of its relative isolation, population stability and high housing allowance rates, Coulson argued. The remote southeastern California base’s housing allowance rates rival those of some major metropolitan areas: a captain with dependents receives $2,688 per month at Fort Irwin, while the same officer would receive $2,568 per month in Atlanta.

The pilot privatized barracks project is undergoing staff assessments at the Defense Department level and requires final approval from budget officials before it can begin, but Coulson is optimistic the approvals will come quickly. After that, the service will negotiate a lease with the Michaels Organization (which administers existing privatized family housing at Fort Irwin) and complete an environmental assessment before breaking ground.

Tentative plans for the Irwin development call for approximately 500 soldiers’ worth of two-bedroom suites, organized into roughly company-sized buildings. Under the current plan, Coulson said, each suite will have its own kitchen and living area, and the complex will have amenities including a business center, a swimming pool and a fitness facility.

Coulson said the pilot project’s success will be gauged via tenant satisfaction surveys, command feedback, occupancy rates/waitlist length and whether financial projections hold up. Privatized housing projects self-fund their eventual renovations through a mandatory reinvestment account that collects a large portion of the partner company’s revenue on the project.

Should the model prove successful at Fort Irwin, Coulson said the Army can reallocate military construction funding that would have gone to building Army-owned barracks there (and at the few other potential sites for privatized barracks projects.)

“In this case, we’re going to be able to use about $250 million in military construction [funds] … to [build] somewhere else where we’ve got a greater need,” Coulson explained.

Critics of the privatized barracks proposals point at endemic problems with privatized on-post family housing projects. The Army has struggled to implement effective oversight and inspection mechanisms for those homes, auditors found last year.

Coulson argued, however, that the service’s existing privatized unaccompanied quarters — primarily intended for single officers and noncommissioned officers — consistently score very well in the service’s housing satisfaction surveys. A September 2023 watchdog report that largely blasted the condition of barracks buildings across the DOD found that all privatized barracks it inspected exceeded quality standards.

The housing official added that soldiers in the privatized barracks will enjoy protection under the DOD’s Tenant Bill of Rights when it comes to their relationship with the company administering the project.

Ultimately, Coulson said, the privatized barracks pilot represents just a small part of the efforts underway to solve the Army’s barracks quality problems.

“We’re doing an awful lot of work … to understand how we can provide a better [barracks] inventory for our soldiers as quickly and as effectively as we can,” she said. “Privatized barracks is but a tool in the toolbox of the things that we can use.”

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

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