Senators peppered service officials for more than two hours Tuesday with questions about ongoing problems with privatized family housing.
Meanwhile, government auditors issued a report saying DoD’s measures of tenant satisfaction are fundamentally flawed, leading to financial rewards to housing companies that may have been undeserved.
The latest hearing came 10 months after the first hearings where family members testified about the hazards that threatened their health and safety, and their frustrations in getting their landlord to fix the problems—and no help from their military officials on base.
But things haven’t changed much in the interim, said the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We continue to hear regularly from families across the country about questionable practices, poor workmanship, and frankly, in some places, about housing contractors just not caring about the families they are serving,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.
“The time for talk is over. If these companies cannot get the job done, you owe it to our military families to find a company who will.”
Dozens of family members attended the hearing, often clapping at senators’ questions and comments, such as when Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., suggested that some of the privatized company CEOs should move into military housing over the holidays.
They clapped when Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said she didn’t understand why a single installation commander hasn’t been fired because of these problems. Duckworth also said the services should notify all families who have previously lived in these houses about the problems, in case health issues surface in the future..
Although defense and service officials are headed in the right direction to fix problems that have led to mold, pest infestation, water leakage and other issues in family housing, it’s going to take sustained effort over a number of years to fully meet their goal of providing safe, clean housing for all service members and their families, an official with the Government Accountability Office told senators.
In a new report issued Tuesday, GAO found that defense officials have been reporting to Congress fundamentally flawed information about the success of the privatized military housing program for years, including tenant satisfaction rates of 87 percent as recently as 2017. DoD has also used high occupancy rates as a measure -- also flawed, because families live on base for many reasons such as the need to be near work and base amenities, not the quality of housing, auditors found.
The GAO findings about the flawed assessments are significant and not just because DoD’s statements to Congress for years that the program has been successful overall may not be fully accurate. That’s because DoD has been using these metrics to reward and pay incentive fees to the privatized housing partners, said Elizabeth A. Field, director of defense capabilities and management for the Government Accountability Office, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The services and DoD have had more assessments for financial viability of the projects than for the habitability of the houses, Field said.
Auditors found that the 87 percent satisfaction finding is in no way reliable, Field said. There are varying reasons, such as the way the services ask certain questions. GAO auditors also analyzed more than 8 million work orders for family housing in an effort to determine the prevalence of certain hazards, and to assess the timelessness of housing companies’ response to maintenance requests. The data was not reliable or consistent enough to make any determinations, she said. In some cases, work orders had a completion date that was prior to the date when they were submitted.
In a report issued earlier this year, the Military Family Advisory Network found that more than half of military families surveyed had issues with their privatized housing.
“I definitely feel misled by this 87 percent,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., noting that the way certain questions were asked on the survey “tells us absolutely nothing about the housing.” In 2019, DoD has revised the questions.
Kaine said it appears the companies have had a double standard, with high standards for the private sector, but not treating military families as well because they felt they were a captive market.
The military housing tenant bill of rights is finalized, but waiting on the passage of the defense authorization bill, according to the service secretaries who testified before the committee. The bill of rights will provide stronger government advocacy for military residents, and a dispute resolution process, among other things. The pending bill contains provisions related to the tenant bill of rights.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said he is still hearing from some families with issues with their landlords, including some who are being forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, to keep quiet about their housing problems.
“When is enough enough?” Tillis asked the service secretaries.
“We might be there right now,” said Army Secretary Ryan. D. McCarthy.
Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly and Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett said they may be there, too, in certain cases.
None of service secretaries were in their positions when the problems first came to light about the hazards in privatized housing.
Among other things, the services and DoD are looking at the procedures for providing incentive fees for the private companies, including adding more measures related to the condition of the houses. The Navy hasn’t given an incentive fee this year, Modly said.
Some of the families who attended the hearing said they were encouraged by parts of what they heard, such as the increased emphasis on the military chain of responsibility for family housing. Advocate Rachel Christian said thinks the suggestion that it be part of the installation commanders’ evaluations would make it difficult to turn away families who need help with their housing issues. And referring the cases of possible criminal violations to the Justice Department would send a clear message to the housing companies, she said. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked the service secretaries for information on the status of investigations.
Families are also skeptical. Air Force wife Kelly Johnson, who lives at Dover Air Force Base, Del., has been displaced with her family four times in 19 months, out of their home for a total of 92 days. It’s especially difficult for her family, with two of their four children having special needs. Her daughter has been in the hospital 20 times, she said, including during two of their periods when they were displaced.
“It’s hard to be excited about anything because nothing has been delivered,” Johnson said.
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.