Senators say DOD has a ‘long way to go’ to fix military housing issues

by Tommy Grant

Citing military families’ continued problems with mold, asbestos, lead-based paint, and the Defense Department’s slow implementation of certain reforms, senators are pressing Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for answers about what steps will be taken, and when.

In a letter sent today to Austin, the senators outlined those concerns and asked for answers to 15 detailed questions by Jan. 2.

“We are concerned that as military families continue to experience exposure to lead, mold and other health risks from unsafe housing conditions, the private companies that provide on-base housing are disregarding their concerns,” wrote the senators, in their Dec. 6 letter. “The Department of Defense has a long way to go to fully implement reforms and restore military families’ confidence.”

Five years after problems with military family housing reached a boiling point, and laws were enacted to reform the way the Defense Department oversees family housing, senators still want to know what is being done to address these hazards, when the Pentagon will establish a public complaint database for privatized military housing, and what the military is doing to improve the dispute resolution process when families can’t get their problems fixed.

The letter was signed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel subcommittee; and fellow subcommittee members Sens. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Tim Kaine, D-Va., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington also signed the letter.

The senators said they are “alarmed” by reports that military families continue to struggle with mold in their privatized housing. They cited the 2022 Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey which found that 22% of active duty family members who responded to the online poll indicated their family had been exposed to environmental toxins in military housing.

The senators raised questions about the Defense Department’s implementation of reforms enacted into law over the last several years to fix problems in military family housing. Families said their complaints were falling on deaf ears, the repairs weren’t being made and their health was suffering as a result. And the military wasn’t stepping in to address problems with privatized housing companies.

Following Reuters and other media reports and congressional hearings in 2019, laws were enacted in late 2019 and late 2020 to address the problems and force defense and service officials to provide better oversight of privatized housing landlords, and to be more responsive to families frustrated by lack of action. Among other things, families asked that a process be put into place to withhold their rent from the companies until the problems were fixed.

A number of military families have sued their privatized housing landlords in different locations.

The Pentagon and the services have taken a number of actions to address these problems with privatized housing, such as increasing the number of personnel at housing offices to provide better oversight, and to act as liaisons with families and landlords.

But the military hasn’t taken the reforms far enough, the senators said.

The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act required the military to establish a formal dispute resolution process for families living in substandard housing, which can result in rent being held in escrow until the problem is fixed. But there have been reports, including reports from the Government Accountability Office, of a broad trend of confusion among both residents and military housing officials, about that process. Some military families have indicated their distrust and confusion about the process, the senators noted. Residents who wanted their rents withheld until the housing company addressed unresolved maintenance issues, told the GAO that their military service hadn’t provided a method for withholding the rent.

The GAO cited the Air Force’s own after-action review of its first formal resolution dispute, which confirmed the problems. Not only did residents lack general knowledge of the formal dispute process, but so did Air Force leadership, military housing office officials, private housing company officials, and resident advocates, GAO auditors found. The senators asked for detailed breakdowns of how many formal dispute resolution processes have been filed since that process began, and what guidance the service branches give to service members and their families on that formal dispute resolution process, as well as guidance given to military housing offices about the process.

Families have also raised concerns, the senators said, about confidentiality requirements of the dispute process, and whether or not the process tends to favor the privatized housing companies. The senators asked Austin for answers about why the military forces tenants to sign a lease that includes a confidentiality clause for a formal dispute resolution “before tenants even know if they use such a process.”

The senators also asked Austin what has impeded the Pentagon “from the timely development and implementation of the public complaint database for privatized military housing,” which was also a requirement of the 2020 law. This would allow potential residents to find information they need about the quality of their housing, and the records of the companies that operate the housing. Defense Department officials have told Military Times in the past that given budgetary, contract and Privacy Act issues, it will take time to implement the complaint database.

The senators asked what information the services provide to residents about exposure to these hazards, including the health risks, and what to look for in their housing units. Other questions included whether the military conducts surveys of service members to find out how often they have to deal with these hazards, and whether all the service branches have conducted audits or analyses, similar to the Army Audit Agency’s report on lead-based paint and asbestos in military housing.

The senators also request a briefing specifically on actions the Pentagon has taken to address asbestos, lead-based paint and mold in military housing, and the implementation of the formal dispute resolution process.

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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