House lawmakers are demanding more oversight of military housing problems but providing less money than their Senate counterparts to do the work in budget legislation to be debated this week.
House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., on Monday released the final details of his panel’s massive defense authorization bill, which includes $140 million for new civilian personnel “to provide additional oversight and management of military family housing.”
The move comes after months of reports of mold, vermin and unaddressed repairs in privatized military housing units across the country. Defense Department officials have repeatedly vowed to fix the problems, calling it a breach of faith with military families.
But they have also defended the privatized housing model, which started in the early 1990s. Until then, Defense Department officials were directly responsible for construction and maintenance of those homes, but concerns arose about the cost and focus of military leaders on providing high-quality housing.
In testimony before Congress in recent months, military leaders have said the overall quality of the housing is significantly above what it was 30 years ago. About one-fourth of service members today live in privatized homes, with their monthly housing allowances going directly to outside companies.
But lawmakers in both the House and Senate expressed concerns that department oversight of the outside companies has become too lax, with performance bonuses becoming automatic even as complaints from residents mount.
The new oversight personnel system is designed to fix that part of the problem. House Armed Services Committee staff will also require a report on “manpower requirements and an execution plan” to appropriately staff military housing offices.
But the $140.8 million allotted for that work is less than half the $300 million Senate Armed Services Committee members approved in their authorization bill draft last month. Overall defense spending in the Senate’s Republican-led committee is also $17 billion above what House’ Democrat-lead panel is considering.
Those differences are two of multiple points of contention between the separate versions of the authorization bill, which has passed Congress annually for more than five decades. While the panels appear committed to the idea of providing money and personnel for the oversight work, the specific levels will have to be negotiated in months to come.
The House committee will mark up its full version on Wednesday, and both chambers are expected to vote on their separate versions in the next few weeks to allow for compromise negotiations to take place throughout the summer.
On military housing issues, the House committee version also includes a requirement for better monitoring of health and safety issues at the private units, and for expanded tracking of lead levels in children of military families. It requires each of the services to maintain an assistant secretary with responsibility for environment, installation, and energy issues.
It also advances Defense Department proposals for a “tenants’ bill of rights” which would include a prohibition on reprisal against families that report problems, a provision to withhold automatic rent payments to companies that fail to address complaints, and establishment of housing advocates independent from rental management firms.
House lawmakers also want to end the use of non-disclosure agreements in troops’ housing contracts, arguing the moves make it more difficult to discover problems with the housing system.
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.