Military spouses suggested to lawmakers one immediate way, for starters, to fix problems like mold, lead paint, termites, mice and other issues in privatized military housing: allow families to withhold rent payments until the issues are resolved.

Spouses testified before senators Wednesday, then watched as senators grilled company officials, and DoD and service officials, about the problems. All the officials admitted there have been breakdowns in the system, and assured senators they are making a commitment to address the systemic problems.

Robert McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, told the senators that what he heard from the spouses “reinforced what we already know, that we collectively have to do significantly better."

McMahon said that working with DoD attorneys to look at possibly withholding rent payments to the companies “would be prudent, to ensure [privatization] partners respond rapidly.” The privatized housing rent payments are generally the service member’s Basic Allowance for Housing, paid by allotment.

John Henderson, a retired colonel who is assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy, said he agreed that residents should have the ability to choose whether or not to pay their rent if they feel the landlord isn’t giving them a safe place to live.

“That makes the landlord responsive financially to the resident,” he said. “I think there should rebates for untimely repairs, for power outages” and other issues, he said, adding that some privatized companies already do that.

Wednesday’s hearing is the beginning of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s efforts to address the problems.

“Our service members and their families deserve high-quality, affordable housing. One mistake is too many,” said committee chair Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma. He noted that the privatization initiative started in the 1990s as an effort to address housing managed by the government that was in disrepair.

“We need necessary reforms to ensure accountability and excellence in privatized housing,” Inhofe said.

The spouses testified about their difficulties in getting the companies to take their complaints seriously — even as black mold was growing out of walls, floors and ceilings, and entire families were getting sick. There was also difficulty determining who, if anyone, in the military establishment was holding the companies accountable. The families are left with no recourse.

“I first became aware of the crisis-level military housing issues at Keesler Air Force Base where termites fell out of light fixtures into our beds,” said Marine wife Crystal Cornwall. She said the housing office at Keesler in Mississippi told her that termites in her home are to be expected because of the region.

“At Camp Pendleton, we lived with pervasive mold issues and unjustifiable move-out charges,” she said, and were charged $700 for carpet replacement.

“The housing representative used a black light and moisture stick to find stains unseen by the naked eye. When I disputed the validity of these charges, I found no path to resolution with the housing company, Camp Pendleton, or with my husband’s former command.”

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., said she was “infuriated” by what the spouses described.

"This is disgusting,” said the retired Air Force colonel. "Instead of being partners with our troops to make sure our way of life is kept safe and free, they left you hanging. They put you in harm’s way. This is so wrong.”

She said the chain of command needs to be involved, be responsible “and has to be able to poke fingers in the chests of these companies and say, ‘Fix it now, or you’re done.’”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., questioned the companies, and DoD and service officials about the contracts and incentives, and how the military makes sure the companies are meeting their obligations. It’s primarily through the surveys, although the Army and Air Force have initiated investigations into some aspects of the housing issues.

“Those surveys did not alert you to the mice, the mold, the lead poisoning,” she said.

“These contracts are bad enough as they are, virtually guaranteed profit, in return for which they’re supposed to provide decent housing. The one tool you’ve got is to say there’s got to be some performance evaluation. To give away 95 percent of the performance based money at the same time that we’re hearing from the people who live in this housing, that it’s rat infested, it’s dirty, that things leak... it’s just not right not using the tools Congress gave to you on behalf of our service members.”

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., told the company officials that the testimony suggested the system is broken, and that it is evident to the families, but not to the companies.

For their part, the companies said they are working on various initiatives such as setting up people and mechanisms to better interact with residents. For example, Balfour Beatty Communities has created new resident engagement specialist positions, to make sure residents’ concerns are being heard, said Christopher Williams, the company’s president. Recently they hired a nationally known environmental firm to review their mold and moisture inspection policies, and are taking steps to implement those recommendations.

“Military families understand that quality housing does not mean entitlement to elegant mansions,” said Marine wife Crystal Cornwall. “We simply ask for homes free of mold, pests, lead, and other hazards. .... As parents, we want safe places for our children to sleep at night.”

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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