The retired Navy admiral who has been nominated to be in charge of Navy installations told senators he is “livid” about housing conditions of some sailors and their families.
And Charles A. Williams, nominated by President Donald Trump for assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, knows something about housing.
He has 40 years of real estate experience.
Williams said if he is confirmed, his first priority will be to tackle problems with Navy privatized housing. Although he needs to study the issue more, he said, “I’ll lay out a plan in fairly short order" during his confirmation hearing testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I’ve seen some pictures of some housing that I cannot believe that any professional property manager would allow a tenant to [live in],” he said. “I’m kind of livid about this because as a commanding officer, it’s about taking care of our people, and we’ve let them down,” Williams said.
This position is a critical one as the Navy addresses problems with mold, lead paint, rodent infestation and other issues that have plagued some of its privatized housing. The problems cross all branches of service. The issue was first reported by Reuters. Spouses testified before lawmakers last year about their concerns about their families’ health and safety, and their frustrations in getting privatized housing companies to fix problems in their houses, or to get military officials to intervene on their behalf.
The services have taken a number of steps to address problems with delays in maintenance, and proper corrective work, and have hired more government housing staff to increase oversight of the housing at the installation level. A tenant bill of rights is pending. The recently enacted Fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act also contains a number of provisions aimed at addressing the problems.
Williams served more than 32 years of combined active and reserve duty. While most of his real estate career has been in the commercial sector, Williams said he has owned some residential apartments.
”One standard I used when I refurbished a property, to get it ready for the next tenant was, ‘Would I live in that property? Would I have my family live in that property?’ “
The private sector has a profit motive, while military officials have the motive to take care of their people, Williams said, when asked if he has any opinions about the root cause of the problem. “We took our eye off the ball,” he said.
“I think they have a captive audience on a base, and more so than they do on the outside, where they have to compete. This is my take,” Williams said, while adding he has a lot to learn about the current problems.
Williams said he’s worked with some of the housing companies, specifically mentioning Lincoln and Lendlease.
“These are professional firms. They’re national, international firms. They ought to be embarrassed that this kind of property management goes on,” Williams said. “Our sailors shouldn’t have to put up with that, and their families. I don’t get it. These people are professionals. They ought to be able to manage a property, particularly an apartment building.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he’s happy to see a nominee with a background in real estate, as well as Williams Navy background. He said Williams’ quick assessment about the source of the problem is accurate. The companies “were treating our service men and women like they were captives or hostages, that they didn’t have to do anything good for them, because where are they going to live anyway?” Kaine said.
Kaine suggested that Williams pay attention to what the Army has done in addressing problems with privatized housing, especially in putting Gen. Gus Perna, commanding general of the Army Materiel Command, in charge of the Army’s efforts. “He’s the person that the [secretary of the Army’ and the service chief will hold responsible,” Kaine said.
Williams said he’s willing to take legal action, if warranted, including potentially recommending criminal charges if fraud or other wrongdoing is found.
“I want to put people on notice… Once I learn what I can do, I’m going to take some action,” Williams said. He will look at all aspects of the partnerships, if confirmed, he said, such as legal and other options, default provisions, responsibilities of companies and the Navy, financial reserves for future improvements and replacements on the properties.
The problems with housing reach into readiness, Williams said.
“The last thing we need is a young sailor to be on a destroyer in the South China Sea standing watch, and prior to going on watch he gets a message that his family has gone to an emergency room because of respiratory problems for a spouse and a child.
“Now he’s distracted. He’s mad at the Navy, and he’s supposed to be out there looking for ships so we don’t have another collision like we had with the Fitzgerald and the McCain.
“That can’t happen.”
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.