DoD has ‘a lot of work to do’ to fix military housing

Deteriorating barracks facilities are part of a larger, systemic military housing issue plaguing DoD year after year.

A recent cockroach infestation at a Camp Lejeune barracks in North Carolina is forcing the Marine Corps to move some of its troops out of the building. Meanwhile, enlisted Marines have been putting up with cold or lukewarm showers for the last couple of months at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California.

“Infrastructure across the department and the services continues to age, and the deteriorating conditions at military facilities obviously have broader effects,” Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) said at the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) panel hearing Wednesday. “I don’t think anybody on this committee or any of you are expecting our service members to live in the Taj Mahal. I don’t think that’s their expectation, but this is disgusting. This is unsatisfactory.”

Despite high agreement that deteriorating conditions of military facilities affect recruitment, retention and overall national security, Defense Department officials acknowledge there is a lot of work ahead to address the underlying problems.

The military services, however, are making “meaningful progress” in addressing continued problems in military housing.

Meredith Berger, assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, said the Marines Corps just ordered a “wall-to-wall” inspection of all the barracks. The effort will allow the service to complete an assessment of its inventory and get a better understanding of the conditions of each barracks. Inspections will be completed by March 15.

Berger also said the Navy recently rolled out a QR code program to improve the housing maintenance reporting process. Since its rollout, the service has seen a 24% increase in service calls, and a quarter of all calls are being generated via the QR Code.

Ravi Chaudhary, Air Force assistant secretary for energy, installations and environment, said the service plans to invest $1.1 billion in its dorms program.

“This is nearly triple the investment over the previous five years ending fiscal 2021 and is the largest dorm investment in over a decade. Further, we have exceeded the [Office of the Secretary of Defense] performance goals for the condition of dorms since the inception of the metric in fiscal 2013,” Chaudhary said.

Additionally, Brendan Owens, assistant secretary of Defense for installations, energy and environment, said DoD established a tiger team that will address fiscal 2024 defense policy bill provisions along with the issues highlighted by the Government Accountability Office’s audits.

“The tiger team will focus on determining new configuration and habitability standards; improving the accessibility, availability and reliability of housing metrics, developing standardized preventive maintenance plans and schedules; and identifying opportunities to improve quality of life and resilience,” he said.

The HASC hearing follows the release of a scathing report by the GAO that found that conditions at some of the military barracks posed significant health and safety risks.

GAO found that DoD lacked sufficient oversight of its housing programs and didn’t have well-defined standards for health and safety in its barracks.

The HASC hearing also follows a similar GAO report from April 2023 that says DoD improved its oversight of its privatized housing program, but gaps in guidance and training still persist.

Owens said his team expects to implement 28 out of the 31 GAO recommendations this year.

In September, Waltz and Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) sent a letter asking the Office of the Secretary of Defense to provide the subcommittee a briefing on the corrective measures the department plans to take to address poor living conditions at military barracks.

“Ranking Member John Garamendi and I sent a letter to Secretary Austin last year stating our bipartisan commitment to conducting oversight, finding solutions to these problems because poorly maintained and neglected barracks aggravates the recruitment and retention crisis that we’re currently experiencing,” Waltz said.

In December, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), among others, sent a similar letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressing their concern about military families’ continued exposure to lead, mold and other health risks from unsafe housing conditions. They also asked for answers about what steps DoD will take to address the issues.

Waltz said he wants the military “out of the hotel business” entirely to let service members focus on their mission rather than managing housing.

“I would ask you to seriously think about one concept. I would like to get the Department of Defense as we’ve done with housing to the extent absolutely possible out of the hotel management business. We have private sector entities that do it incredibly well at scale all over the world, and they would certainly go out of business in a second if any of their facilities look like this,” he said.

Disrepair at barracks facilities, however, is part of a larger, systemic issue related to the funding allocated for maintaining and improving military facilities. Facilities sustainment, restoration and modernization budget lines continue to be underfunded in the budget requests every year, according to Waltz.

Waltz also asked the military officials about accountability and whether anyone had been dismissed following the GAO findings. Owens said he didn’t know anyone who had been dismissed as a result of the GAO’s audit.

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