Military housing advocacy group sees miles of work ahead after Balfour Beatty plea

Late last week one of the largest military housing providers pleaded guilty to defrauding the military and agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars in restitution to military families for not performing repairs and ignoring dangerous living conditions.

While many would be celebrating a slugger shot for military families, a fledgling housing advocacy group is seeing the end of the lawsuit as just the beginning.

“Problems with military housing haven’t gone away, and in some instances it’s gotten worse or became long term,” said Sarah Kline, founder and director of community outreach at Armed Forces Housing Advocates (AFHA). “We still have families that discover these problems and have even had remediation completed to a degree where the housing company may say, or the installation or Garrison or Wing says, the house is okay. And then, mold comes back.”

Kline started AFHA along with her partners Rachel Christian, Noelle Pacl and Kate Needham. Since then they’ve dived head first into military housing advocacy. The organization works directly with military families having issues with mice, mold and lead paint in public and private military housing. The organization works on window safety and most recently is helping families impacted by jet fuel contaminating the water supply in Hawaii.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) sent a letter to Army Secretary Christine Wormuth on Dec. 21 after AFHA brought mold issues at Ft. Bragg to his attention.

It’s been nearly three years since issues with privatized military housing bubbled up to national attention. Since then, Congress has appropriated money to better housing conditions, created more rights for tenants and pledged to hire more staff to keep housing companies accountable.

Kline said those reforms have helped, but they aren’t nearly enough.

“One of the biggest things we’ve seen is the military housing offices run by the government, which were typically run by two employees in 2019, some of those now have more than six,” Kline said. “They’ve done a great job of getting warm bodies in seats, but there’s still a process to train them and they’re still learning. That’s been difficult.”

Kline said she’s concerned about who is getting the jobs as well. AFHA has seen employees from military housing companies move over to the new government jobs. Kline said she’d like to see the government hire vertical engineers or people with HVAC experience instead.

Then there is the tenant bill of rights. The Congressionally mandated provisions protecting military families spent some time being bantered about between housing companies and the Defense Department. The Pentagon said it sewed up the final pieces this summer, but Kline said it’s more complicated than that.

One of the biggest provisions was a dispute resolution between families and the companies. Kline said there are still kinks in the way it works.

“We wanted to see exactly how that would be implemented, and unfortunately, the number of families attempting to seek that dispute resolution, and the ones that actually end up making it through that process are vastly different,” she said. “Those metrics are completely different. We’ve had families request dispute resolution, but instead they are sent away with a list of attorneys from their installation legal office, when really they wanted to go through that process. Even though we had the bill of rights finalized in the summer of 2021, presently, we’re still not seeing families be able to use the dispute process as it was intended by the legislation.”

Kline says the punishment of Balfour Beatty Communities (BBC) last week is just a drop in the bucket for what service members and their families are going through.

There are still multiple lawsuits filed by families against the 15 housing companies. Service members in Hawaii are living with contaminated water. Families are finding mold and pest in their houses. Even newer houses are having repair and mold issues.

“The fate of military housing continues to be a systemic issue across the nation, with BBC-owned contracts and others, and the military privatized housing program remains without enough oversight to properly prevent these military privatized housing companies from abusing their tenants,” Kline said.

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