In the wake of reports from military families dealing with problems ranging from mold to mice to lead paint in their housing — and persistent frustrations in getting their concerns addressed — service officials are taking immediate steps to identify and fix problems, and to give their residents a voice.
It started with mandates from the highest levels to put eyes on the problem.
The Army characterizes its effort as an “installation-wide” housing inspection, and the Air Force as a “100 percent in-person health and safety check” of all family housing units. The Navy and Marine Corps are contacting all their service members, but are leaving it up to their service members to agree to a voluntary visit of their homes, for privacy reasons.
The Marine Corps is taking the effort a step further, by including off-base civilian rental properties in their visits, in addition to government and privatized housing.
The Army and Air Force are also looking into a possible “tenant bill of rights” that would allow service members to suspend their rent payments if their problems are not resolved. This remedy was brought up by military spouses during a Feb. 13 Senate hearing as an immediate step to help get problems resolved more quickly.
Defense and service housing officials, and representatives from five of the companies that manage a large number of privatized housing units, said they wouldn’t oppose the idea of withholding the rent payments if problems are not resolved.
The services are also working with privatized housing companies to put additional permanent processes in place for addressing residents’ problems, which were the subject of an investigation by Reuters.
Here’s what the services are doing:
Within the next 30 days, senior commanders will complete installation-wide housing inspections, and report the results up through the chain of command.
Army senior leaders have also required senior commanders to personally conduct town hall meetings to allow families to voice their concerns. Leaders have met with senior executives from seven companies who agreed to work on the “tenant bill of rights,” and allow soldiers to suspend their rent payments if problems are not resolved. They agreed to improve work-order transparency through an online tracking system, and to make sure there’s adequate staff available at each installation to address residents’ housing problems.
By March 1, commanders at every base worldwide will conduct a “100 percent review” of the condition and safety of military housing, at the direction of Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. A standard checklist will be used to ensure consistency. Base officials will conduct walk-throughs with residents to document any health or safety risks, and will solicit feedback from their airmen about any issues.
Wilson also directed the Air Force Inspector General to review how the service responds to complaints about conditions in base housing.
By April 15, commanders must ask to visit the residence of every Marine and sailor — those in government quarters, privatized housing or an off-base civilian rental property. The service member and spouse can accept or decline the visit. According to a Feb. 22 white letter from Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller, the purpose of the visits will be to raise the Corps’ awareness of service members’ living conditions; identify any safety or maintenance issues and determine what actions have been taken to address them; determine how the chain of command can help resolve issues; and make sure service members and families know the support processes and programs available.
“I expect commanders to know where their Marines and sailors are living and to actively advocate on their behalf,” Neller wrote.
By April 15, command leadership must contact every sailor living in government housing or privatized housing, and ask if their housing is satisfactory. This includes families of deployed sailors. The leadership will offer to visit the residence. Officials note that it’s not an inspection program, and visits are to be strictly voluntary. The purpose is to raise Navy officials’ awareness of family living conditions; personally observe any issues and understand any actions being taken; and help families get them resolved.
All records of contact with the sailor, including situations where the sailor says housing is satisfactory, and all home visitation records, will be submitted to the commanding officer. The Navy specifies that observations recorded on home visits won’t be used for evaluations and fitness reports.
“In short, the purpose of this effort, including the visit, is to be their advocate,” wrote Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russ Smith and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. J.M. Richardson, in their Feb. 23 NavAdmin.
The two acknowledged that the government’s role in the privatized housing effort has become “too passive, leaving the day-to-day operation of the housing program to the residents and the private partners.
“We need to re-engage, especially at the command level, to advocate for our sailors,” they wrote. The Navy is working to increase oversight of the private companies, introduce improved quality assurance of the housing operations, follow-up on issues, and add feedback mechanisms and improve customer service.
Lawmakers have criticized military officials for their lack of oversight and the lack of accountability for problems in military housing. An investigation by Reuters found a number of military families living in appalling living conditions.
Military families have expressed frustration at the lack of response from some privatized companies, and from the military, when they complained about conditions such as mold and lead paint.
The initiative to turn over most military family housing started 23 years ago, in order to solve a costly problem of renovating and replacing dilapidated government housing that had suffered from years of lack of upkeep.
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.