“I’m a battle rhythm person. I don’t believe in handling things [just] when they become emergencies. My goal is to set foundations, and then you can be adaptive and agile to emergencies,” Perna said, in a recent interview with Military Times. “And you can’t be innovative if you can’t do your core tasks well.”
Perna, who is commanding general of Army Materiel Command, was tasked earlier this year by Army leaders with the mission of fixing the Army’s privatized housing problems.
As problems with mold, lead paint and other health and safety issues in military privatized housing have gotten the national spotlight over the last year, officials in the services and in privatized housing companies have vowed to address the problems quickly. Service officials have hired more personnel for installation housing offices, have drafted a tenant bill of rights which should be finalized soon, are addressing lack of response to work orders, and are working to develop common leases, among other things.
Behind the scenes, Perna’s work is extensive, drilling down to get more information, and making key decisions regarding the housing communities.
Some have expressed sympathy that he has been given this mission, Perna said. To that, he replies, “No, it’s a great mission. It’s a great mission for our Army. It’s going to improve Army readiness. The soldiers and families deserve it, and we want them to have confidence....’”
That’s the right attitude, said Darlena Brown, an Army wife who is founder and president of the Military Housing Advocacy Network. “That’s a great response. We need that mentality. This really affects our readiness. We need a senior leader. We need the military to be providing leadership. This is a great start. At least one branch of service has recognized the need for this and is pushing forward."
Army senior leaders’ action to put a commander in charge was a big step, and sends a message about their commitment to ensuring that Army housing gets on the right track ― and stays on track, Perna said.
“The difference is, a commander is responsible. I’ve been designated. And it’s not Gus Perna – it’s the four-star position in Army Materiel Command that will sustain into the future,” he said.
While there has been a lot of attention given to upcoming tenant bill of rights, Perna doesn’t want service members and families to have the wrong impression “that we’re going to publish this and all of a sudden it’s going to be Disney World,” he said. “It’s the foundation that we reference in our execution to achieve our goals.”
That execution means establishing a battle rhythm with installations and with privatized housing companies to first fix the immediate problems, but also to set processes in place to ensure the houses are fixed, maintained, renovated and replaced as needed so that the communities endure for the next 20, 30, 40 years.
That’s what the privatization initiative was intended to do in the late 1990s and 2000s, when it was started. Previously, many military family houses had become dilapidated because the services weren’t maintaining their stocks of military family housing, resulting in many of the same problems we’re seeing today. Instead of using funds intended for maintenance and refurbishing, service officials were using funds for other purposes.
Here are some of his actions:
1. Monthly (at least) conversations with the CEOs of the seven companies involved with the Army’s privatized housing. “It’s a conversation with me, it’s locked on my calendar, that they have adjusted to. We go down a pretty good laundry list of good and bad things,” he said, adding it’s a two-way conversation and sometimes the CEOs have asked for his help on issues.
That engagement is making a difference to local installation commanders, who don’t have the authority to direct a company to take action. For example, Fort Belvoir garrison commander Col. Michael Greenberg told Military Times recently that Maj. Gen. Omar Jones, commanding general of Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region/Army Military District of Washington, takes a proactive role in working with their privatized housing company, Clark Realty. They send their comments to Perna.
“I know I communicate the messages up, and I get feedback back down saying they’ve discussed it,” Greenberg said.
2. Focusing on getting maintenance work orders done. Perna takes a hard line on life, health and safety issues.
“We’re not going to have families and soldiers in harm’s way. Period,” he said. “We’re going to take a very tactical approach, and we’re going to solve this work order lack of confidence issue with our families,” Perna said.
For work orders for correcting maintenance problems affecting life, health and safety, “time will not lapse. Twenty-four hours. Immediate action,” Perna said.
The Army has hired inspectors to do quality assurance inspections, and they’re checking 100 percent of the work related to life, health and safety matters, Perna said. In addition, he said, “I told those [company CEOs] they are going to hire people to do the work,” he said.
“This crap about sending somebody out to say, ‘Oh yeah, you do have a water leak. Set up another work order and we’ll get somebody out here who knows what you’re talking about… No way. We’re going to get the right people out to do the right work. And we’re going to hold them accountable to timelines and execution.
“So hire the right people. Get them hired now.” Perna said.
All seven of the Army’s privatized housing company partners have improved in their responses to work orders related to life, safety and health, he said.
These Army-hired inspectors are also checking 100 percent of houses between occupancy. “This is so important. If we can get the family moved into a home where everything has been fixed, and they don’t have to walk in with a leaky faucet, an air conditioner that doesn’t work, mildew already, only to have to put in a work order on Day 1, look at how much confidence we instill.”
They’re not perfect yet in these between-occupancy inspections, he said, especially at installations where there’s a compressed, high number of summer rotations such as Fort Leavenworth, Carlisle Barracks and Fort Bliss.
For work orders in general, right now Army housing personnel are generally spot-checking about 5 percent of the work after it’s been done, he said. Officials are in the process of determining the right mix in terms of number of inspections.
Brown said she’s hearing from families in the field that not every house is being inspected before a new family moves in.
“They might be attempting to, but it’s not the case in all places,” she said. Brown said she sees cases where families move out because of problems, but new families move in to the homes without remediation being done.
In addition, many families have told her that work orders are being closed out as being completed, but the work wasn’t done.
3. Changing the process for awarding incentive payments. “We restructured what we’re going to look at and what percentages of the category we’re going to apply to the decision making,” Perna said. At the end of each quarter, the recommendations are made, up through the chain of command, but Perna makes the final decision, he said, “based on what I hear, what I read and what I see.”
Previously, garrison commanders could decide whether or not to give a performance incentive.
“It became very personality based,” Perna said.
Privatized housing companies may be rewarded with incentive fees if their performance merits it. But there has been widespread criticism of the process, which appeared to pay fees to privatized housing companies even when critical work orders were languishing for far too long, and families’ concerns about mold in their houses were going unanswered by companies on the installation.
4. Making sure money is reinvested in the right places. Perna now reviews all the companies’ plans for reinvesting in the communities. Companies submit these plans detailing how they intend to build, renovate or take other actions. His first step was finding all these plans, located at various places such as the Pentagon, or with Army installation officials, or with the companies themselves.
“We had to standardize the forms, make sure we had the right people looking at them, had to get my lawyers involved in them. That’s just me. I had to lock down timelines, standards, all of that. We just did that for the first lap. Now we have a good system in place, and we will drive accordingly,” Perna said.
For example, a privatized housing company might say it’s planning to build five new houses on an installation, but Perna might question that reinvestment, perhaps because there are 20 houses at that base that need some major repair work.
“You’ve got to look at the installation they’re responsible for holistically,” he said. If he questions a plan, he calls the company CEO and asks questions about the reasoning.
“What’s good about these partnerships is that they are truly the experts at developing and producing communities like this. … But it’s about how do we have the conversation? We should not abdicate our responsibility just to them.. .
“That’s why a commander was designated. So now, it’s a combination of everything. It’s my responsibility to our soldiers and families as a commander. It’s about the standards and discipline in the process.”
5. Making sure companies are listening to residents. Perna has told the CEOs he wants their work forces to be out in the communities, talking to residents.
“I need your work force recognizable in the community. I want you to solicit and get their ideas how to improve the community, whether it’s a doggie park, a community center, widened streets, more lights. You’re going to be involved and get their voices," Perna said. “I want the spouses involved. I want the community to be involved in how we improve it.”
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.