Congress expands oversight for privatized military housing

After years of scandals and calls for oversight, Congress is taking a few more steps to improve military housing. The 2023 version of the National Defense Authorization Act calls on the Defense Department to report more details to Congress on its housing privatization projects, including changes to contracts involving loans or ground leases.

Reporting by government watchdogs and media outlets over the last several years revealed widespread deficiencies in military housing, including mold, rodents and...

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After years of scandals and calls for oversight, Congress is taking a few more steps to improve military housing. The 2023 version of the National Defense Authorization Act calls on the Defense Department to report more details to Congress on its housing privatization projects, including changes to contracts involving loans or ground leases.

Reporting by government watchdogs and media outlets over the last several years revealed widespread deficiencies in military housing, including mold, rodents and communication deficiencies between tenants and housing management. The military services and private housing providers have made some improvements along the way: The Government Accountability Office noted recently, for example, that maintenance requests are being evaluated in a way that ensures repairs are being done.

“The military departments have taken steps to focus metrics on the quality of work completed, rather than work order response times,” GAO wrote in an update last March.

But Congress wants more updates on the maintenance requests, and how successfully they are resolved. Performance incentive fees are now tied to quality of work in an equation that measures both timeliness and customer satisfaction. Among the expansion to reporting requirements in the NDAA is “a report on maintenance response times and completion of maintenance requests for the housing units subject to the ground lease.”

Congress also called for more oversight on reporting mold conditions in private housing. The latest measures mandate “a mold inspection of each vacant housing unit before any new tenant moves into the unit, and providing to the new tenant the results of the inspection.’’

A series of revelations about maintenance issues in privatized housing became widely reported starting in 2018, with mold being one of the top complaints. In December of 2021, housing contractor Balfour Beatty Communities LLC pleaded guilty to defrauding the military over faked maintenance reports and agreed to pay more than $65 million in fines and restitution.

Even after the Department of Justice investigation and subsequent guilty plea in the Balfour Beatty case, the slow improvements to housing maintenance have frustrated members of Congress.

“Servicemembers and their families experienced mold exposure, rodent infestations, water leaks, smells, broken appliances, rude and dismissive housing management, and adding insult to injury, there was ineffective oversight of the program by the services,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies appropriations subcommittee at an oversight hearing on military privatized family housing in March, 2022.

Servicemembers and their families have reported health issues that they believe resulted from mold in housing. A DoD inspector general’s report from April of last year recommended the Defense Department keep better records on the relationship between hazardous conditions in housing and reported medical issues. The NDAA gives DoD until March 2023 to meet that recommendation.

In 2019, Congress ordered DoD to create an 18-point bill of rights for military housing tenants. The rights cover issues such as prior notice, transparency and right to counsel in matters relating to the landlord tenant relationship. However, not all the contractors providing housing agreed to incorporate the bill of rights.

“DoD has been statutorily required to establish a tenant bill of rights, but as of March 2022, agreement had not yet been reached with private companies at five installations,” said the GAO report.

In an effort to formalize a chain of command for accountability, the NDAA also directs the assistant secretary of Defense for energy, installations, and environment to serve as the chief housing officer.

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