New in 2024: Housing panel gives military families a voice

by Tommy Grant

Military families in the coming year can expect to see stronger protections for their tenant rights as part of the latest defense policy law enacted in December.

A new housing-focused working group, created by the fiscal year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act enacted Dec. 22, will also offer troops and their spouses the chance to more directly shape living conditions across the military.

The changes aim to crack down on shoddy and sometimes hazardous living conditions in military-run family housing managed by private landlords, where congressionally mandated reforms have failed to fully curb recurring bouts of mold, rodent infestations, leaks and other issues in troops’ homes. There are about 203,000 privatized housing units across the U.S. military.

“I really believe that any attention and focus on the issues in military housing will be beneficial to families,” Rachel Christian, chairwoman of the board and co-founder of the nonprofit Armed Forces Housing Advocates told Military Times. “This is far better than what we saw just a few years ago.”

The Pentagon may soon start inviting service members and spouses to sign up for the new housing working group, though it’s unclear when the panel will begin holding meetings.

The group must meet at least twice a year to review military housing policies and pitch improvements on issues ranging from home inspection practices and resident surveys, to special needs accommodations and other support services.

While lawmakers initially sought to create a separate housing council within the Defense Department, the final law places the new panel under the Pentagon’s Military Family Readiness Council.

Chaired by the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment, the working group must include troops and spouses from each branch of the military. At least two enlisted members and two spouses of enlisted troops must sit on the panel.

Rounding out the working group are the head of the Pentagon’s military family readiness policy office; one base commander from the departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force, or another base-level senior official who oversees public works or civil engineering at that installation; and a defense secretary-appointed representative of the organizations that certify staff to handle building maintenance, inspections or restoration.

In a statement to Military Times, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., praised the working group as a forum to hold the Pentagon and housing providers accountable.

“Military families have turned to DOD for help when their homes were unsafe or filled with mold, only to feel ignored for too long — but that ends now,” said Warren, who chairs the personnel subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Each of the U.S. military’s 14 privatized housing landlords will also be invited to send one representative to at least one meeting each year.

Those companies — like Balfour Beatty Communities, Lendlease and Liberty Military Housing — are responsible for 78 privatized family housing projects at 192 installations. The contractors own and operate 99% of military family housing at domestic bases, spanning 34 Army projects, 31 Air Force projects, and 13 Navy and Marine Corps projects. The U.S. government owns, operates and maintains military family housing overseas.

Privatized housing companies have worked with officials across the U.S. military to boost transparency and accountability among those responsible for maintaining service members’ homes, as well as the quality of life for tenants of those properties.

Still, some residents have continued to complain about how private landlords have responded to problems that can make daily life uncomfortable at best and potentially deadly at worst, and whether the companies are complying with a tenant bill of rights that took effect in 2020.

The Military Housing Association, which represents privatized housing companies, told Military Times it “strongly supports policies that protect tenant rights.”

“Our members look forward to participating in the housing working group to advance our mission and continuously improve the quality and sustainability of military family housing communities,” the association said in a statement.

The association, whose members include seven of the 14 private landlords, said the companies work closely with residents, lawmakers and military officials to ensure their communities “deliver safe and positive housing experiences and high-quality services.”

Phillip Carpenter, chief operating officer of Lendlease Communities, said in a statement to Military Times that company officials are pleased to see that military housing developers will be formally judged on their adherence to the tenant bill of rights. The company is not a member of the Military Housing Association.

Lendlease was the first to fully implement the entire bill of rights, Carpenter said, and has taken the additional step of creating resident advisory boards at each installation with Lendlease homes to improve communication with residents.

Lendlease looks forward to “participating in the housing working group in whatever way is most beneficial,” Carpenter said.

Troops and their families have also questioned the effectiveness of the Defense Department’s oversight of those privatized housing companies. Their concerns have prompted additional congressional hearings and further investigations by the Government Accountability Office and the Pentagon inspector general.

To help address those worries, lawmakers have changed the office tasked with investigating alleged retaliation against those who report problems with their housing units. Under a new provision in the 2024 NDAA, those cases will now be handled by the Pentagon inspector general, rather than the Defense Department’s military’s sustainment boss, because the IG has more expertise, experience and independence when it comes to reprisal investigations, according to one congressional aide. The aide said military spouses have told senators they were “getting the run-around” when they reported retaliation.

The 2024 NDAA also requires defense officials to:

  • Include questions about housing in annual military-wide “status of forces” surveys to assess troops’ satisfaction with their housing, its affordability and whether it has affected their decision to stay in the military.
  • Send Congress information on how fully private landlords are following the Pentagon’s tenant bill of rights. Defense officials must also confirm that companies are complying with those rules before offering bonus pay under any new privatized housing agreements.
  • Implement all of the GAO’s recommendations to strengthen oversight of privatized military housing within one year. The Pentagon must also explain its reasoning if it decides not to adopt those suggestions.

The NDAA also provides additional protections for tenants regarding non-disclosure agreements. Those agreements, also called confidentiality agreements, are legal contracts with privatized housing companies that bar a person from releasing certain information.

While the law already prohibits requiring current or prospective tenants to sign an non-disclosure agreement before they begin, continue or end a lease, it didn’t apply to agreements proposed as part of litigation.

Now, if a tenant is being offered a non-disclosure agreement as part of a potential, ongoing or ended court case, they must be told that they have the right to seek legal counsel for advice on entering that agreement within 10 business days, according to the NDAA.

“There is still work to be done, but I think there has been a remarkable amount of change for the better in just these past five years,” Christian said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families.” She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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