WASHINGTON — Military housing conditions will come under congressional scrutiny this week amid reports of failures by private contractors to maintain acceptable living standards at a host of sites around the country.
On Tuesday, House Appropriations Committee members are expected to grill the services’ top housing officials during a budget posture hearing at the Capitol. The annual oversight meeting is typically a routine look at spending priorities and challenges, but the recent reports have added new tension to the event.
A day later, Senate Armed Services Committee leaders will hold a separate hearing on military housing and the Defense Department’s privatization initiative. That event will include the same service officials, plus representatives from private contracting companies and testimony from military families whose health has been jeopardized by poor housing conditions.
Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he scheduled the event after hearing disturbing complaints from troops in his home state and other locations.
The goal, he said, is to “ensure that our military families are receiving the high-quality, affordable, on-base housing they deserve and … look at what the Department of Defense is doing to hold these contractors accountable.”
A December report by Reuters found significant failings at multiple military housing projects across the country. The problems included “shoddy workmanship, raw sewage, rotten wood and chronic leaks” among other issues.
The news was the latest in a series of reports by the organization chronicling shortcomings in the military’s housing privatization efforts.
The privatization initiative began in the 1990s as a result of the widespread deterioration of family housing, which had suffered from years of maintenance backlogs. Before that, the bulk of housing allowances for troops living on the installation went back to the services for the operation and maintenance of government housing.
Today, most family housing — more than 200,000 units — on installations in the U.S. are maintained by private companies.
But that has led to questions of accountability among military leaders. At a House Appropriations hearing last week, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and chairwoman of the military construction panel, warned service representatives that lawmakers have been unhappy with what they’ve seen so far.
“It feels like the military leadership sort of washed their hands of any oversight of the private contractors that built and managed these family housing units,” she said. “They essentially left it to the private contractors completely with no oversight. That's not what Congress would have intended.”
Military officials have insisted the overall quality of housing options for families has dramatically improved since the privatization push, notwithstanding the problems uncovered in the latest news reports.
Sergeant Major of the Army Daniel Dailey testified at Wasserman Schultz’s committee this week that about 190 Army families are currently living in what the service defines as poor housing conditions, but all of those units are expected to be replaced within the next two years.
But, he added, “we are concerned. I think we can do a better job.”
The housing oversight problems could also become a major issue in the annual defense authorization bill debate, with lawmakers from both chambers looking for potential legislative improvements in the months to come.
Reporter Karen Jowers contributed to this story.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.