Military tenants may have the ability to get information about the maintenance history of their homes by May 1, said a defense official during a background briefing Friday.
The ability to get a seven-year maintenance history before moving into a house was one of the key protections included in the fiscal 2020 defense authorization act — but was one of three protections not included in the military housing privatization tenant bill of rights signed Feb. 25 by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the service secretaries. That bill of rights includes 15 basic rights, which will be available to military tenants by May 1.
Some families have said if they’d known about the prior history of their homes, they wouldn’t have moved into the homes.
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 in February, 2019, 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.
The official said tenant advocates, one of the protections in the bill of rights, will be coming online at installations throughout the year.
Three key protections — the maintenance history before move-in, withholding rent during a dispute, and process for dispute resolution — are still being ironed out. DoD is developing standardized, formal processes for these rights, however advocates and lawmakers have criticized DoD for their delay in providing these protections.
It’s not just the privatized companies that have to agree to the changes in the legal agreements, some of which were signed two decades ago. Issues must be worked out with lenders and bondholders who financed the project, the official said. Their concerns are whether the changes will affect the financial viability of the projects, and affect their investments. Some bondholders have said the dispute resolution process and rent withholding process could take three or four months, the official said.
And DoD has to balance the needs of all the projects, the official said, noting there are 79 housing privatization projects across the service. Because of the differences in the way the projects are structured, DoD has to make sure it doesn’t take steps to accommodate one project, and end up hurting other projects. Those maintenance histories would include a massive amount of information — possibly even including every time a light bulb is changed, the official said. Lenders have expressed concern that the massive amount of paperwork provided to service members with a seven-year history might affect their willingness to rent the house.
It’s not a practice in the private sector to provide those maintenance histories on rental units, he said.
Service officials have been hiring additional housing employees to provide more oversight of the housing companies, and to provide more communication with families.
Over the years, the services have cut back on these employees in government housing offices, in a more austere budget environment. Defense and service officials have said multiple times that they took their eye off the ball when they pulled back from oversight of the housing privatization projects.
That includes discontinuing training for installation commanders on the tools they have to make sure the companies are doing their job. The official said the training will be reinstated.
The decreases in oversight have been from the top down. While the Defense Department was very much involved in the startup of the military housing privatization initiative in the late 1990s, there are now two people in DoD working on the issues related to housing privatization.
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.