Two lawmakers are “extremely disappointed” with “glaring holes” in the new military housing tenant bill of rights, according to a statement issued Wednesday.
“The department’s proposed bill of rights does not go far enough to protect our military families,” said Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In the tenant bill of rights signed by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the service secretaries and made public late Tuesday, DoD provides 15 rights to military tenants by May 1.
But as the bill of rights document notes, three key items — access to maintenance history, process for dispute resolution, and withholding of rent until disputes are resolved — won’t be available by May.
Information was not immediately available from DoD officials about when these remaining three rights will be provided to tenants. The bill of rights notes that many of the rights set by Congress in the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill “pertain to legal matters that do not lend themselves to unilateral action by the department.”
“We have a pathway on some of these to move forward to find a mutually agreeable way to meet the intent and the spirit if not the letter of the law,” said Esper, at a defense budget hearing Feb. 26, in response to a question about the three rights by Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Okla. He said he doesn’t want to promise something right now that he can’t deliver on, and DoD officials will have to come back and work with members of Congress, because of legal contracts between the service branches and the privatized housing companies.
It’s been a year since military spouses first testified before lawmakers about black mold growing out of the walls, rodents, and water leaks in their family housing, and their frustration dealing with landlords and the military to get it fixed. A few weeks after that hearing, the service secretaries announced they were drafting a tenant bill of rights, which would, among other things, allow for the tenant’s rent to be withheld from the landlord while the resident’s dispute is being heard by a neutral decision maker. That rent is generally the service member’s Basic Allowance for Housing.
DoD will continue to work with the housing privatization companies, and, as necessary, Congress, to ensure the benefits of those rights are fully available, according to the tenant bill of rights document, which was made public late Feb. 25. DoD and service officials have been working with executives of privatized housing companies to address the root problems and set up processes to improve housing for military families.
The senators noted they are glad to see DoD has taken steps in the right direction to make sure families have basic tenant rights and fair treatment by housing companies. The 15 rights range from the right to live in a house that meets health and environmental standards; to have a military tenant advocate; to have prompt repairs and maintenance; to the ability to report problems without fear of retaliation.
But those three missing rights are basic to address the needs of military families, the senators wrote, noting that the committee has made it clear — as did the fiscal 2020 defense authorization act — that the bill of rights should include those items.
“Additionally, [DoD] led our military families to believe these protections were in the bill of rights when they circulated a draft for comment as early as May 2019 with those items included.
“This goes directly against the promises made by [DoD] and the housing companies that they would work to regain the trust of our military families,” they wrote.
The senators will continue to work with DoD to make sure those three protections are included in the bill of rights, and if necessary to take additional steps in the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill, they wrote.
And they put DoD on notice. “There is clearly still a lot of work to be done — not just on this bill of rights but through the entire privatized military housing system. But getting this done right is essential – and it needs to be completed quickly.
“We are watching and waiting.”
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.