Residents of privatized housing will soon get the chance to provide their input on a tenant bill of rights that has been drafted by defense and service officials.

“Our intent is to send the draft tenant bill of rights either today or tomorrow to all our family members living on installations so they can give us their feedback on where we are,” said Robert McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, speaking at the national summit of the Association of Defense Communities Tuesday. He said he signed a letter to that effect on Monday evening.

The proposed tenant’s bill of rights is one part of an effort being undertaken by defense and service officials to address rampant problems with mold, lead paint vermin and other health and safety problems brought up by military families, frustrated by their inability to get their company landlords to fix the problem, and no advocate within the military. The families detailed their problems in reporting by Reuters and the Tampa Bay Times among other media outlets, and in congressional hearings. In an online survey conducted by the Military Family Advisory Network, more than half of military families who responded reported problems with their housing.

According to an initial draft announced by the service secretaries in March, the bill of rights will address a variety of issues, such as the ability to withhold a tenant’s rent through a neutral party when problems are not addressed. It states military families have a right to healthy homes and communities; a housing advocate to their representative before the landlord; effective methods of two-way communication with the landlord and maintenance staff; prompt professional repairs; a process for dispute resolution, mediation and arbitration; and protection from reprisal if residents engage government housing staff or installation chain of command; and professional property management services that meet or exceed industry standards.

“We’re moving forward in a way that will quickly enhance the experience our military members are having on installations in family housing, and we’re doing it in a way they know there are people who care. If they have an issue we’re going to be responsive and they’re going to have a voice,” McMahon said, to a group of more than 500 people representing different aspects of communities around military bases.

He said defense officials have shared the draft with members of Congress, and with military and veteran service organizations.

This is just the beginning of their efforts related to housing, McMahon said, noting that just 30 percent of military members live in base housing.

“We can’t forget about those living overseas in government housing, those living in dormitories and barracks… housing for single members, and we certainly can’t forget about those living in communities. They have rights and responsibilities as well. We have to take a broader perspective than where we are right now,” he said.

“We’re going to do it sequentially. We’re focused right now on those that living in privatized housing on installations.”

McMahon also said that another goal over the next year is to “somehow create a meaningful [tenants] bill of rights for military members and families who are moving downtown.”

With regard to privatized housing, McMahon said, “We took our eye off the ball..." McMahon said. “We did privatized housing for all the right reasons. It was a great program.” The program was created 23 years ago to address dilapidated, unsafe and neglected military family housing that was beyond the military’s capacity and budget to fix.

As housing was gradually fixed, renovated or replaced under the privatization program, focus turned elsewhere. “When housing went away, we took our eye off the ball and put it on some other areas. We obviously have our eye back on the ball,” McMahon said.

“I’m tremendously proud of those families who came forward and said there was an issue. They did so at great perceived risk to them. From my perspective there isn’t any, but obviously they felt pressure,” he said.

“I’m tremendously proud that they did this and that it brought the attention it deserves.”

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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