Lawmakers are pushing Secretary of Defense Mark Esper for answers on the status of key protections for tenants of military housing which haven’t been put into place yet.
In June, Defense officials said 14 of the 18 rights in the tenant bill of rights had been implemented in privatized housing communities. The four key remaining provisions are: a process for dispute resolution; a mechanism for withholding the Basic Allowance for Housing payments when disputes arise; a system to provide tenants with a housing unit’s maintenance history; and standard forms and documents, including a standard lease agreement across the privatized housing projects.
The tenant bill of rights was required by law in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2020, as part of comprehensive reform provisions to address pervasive issues with mold, rodents, and other health, safety and environmental hazards in privatized military housing. In 2019, military spouses 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.
“Absent implementation of new oversight and accountability requirements as outlined in the FY20 NDAA, and continued pressure, we worry that the tenuous progress achieved in improving privatized military housing could stagnate or event be reversed over time,” wrote the three Democrat senators, Mark. Warner, D-Va., Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in an Oct. 2 letter to Esper.
As of Wednesday morning, the senators hadn’t received a response. The senators asked for a written response or a briefing, but didn’t state a deadline.
Defense officials are still working with the privatized housing property owners to finalize the remaining provisions of the tenant bill of rights, said DoD spokesman Chuck Prichard.
Advocates are also concerned about the delay in implementation of the final four provisions.
“We are disappointed the long overdue tenant bill of rights is still undergoing negotiations between stakeholders,” said Eryn Wagnon, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America. Military service organizations haven’t received any updates from DoD officials since the beginning of June, she said, "which raises concerns that DoD has not been able to gain traction to implement the most important provisions such as ability to withhold rent and a sound, fair dispute resolution process.
“We believe DoD is working hard to follow the intent of Congress, but struggles to get agreement from outside stakeholders and litigators. The lack of progress speaks volumes as to where the private partners stand in moving forward to make things right with military families.”
The Military Housing Association, a nonprofit group comprised of four of the largest military housing privatization companies, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Companies operating the privatized housing “frequently failed to properly address hazards and to meet their fundamental obligations to service members and their families to provide safe, health and high-quality housing,” wrote the three senators in their letter to Esper.
The senators also asked for information on the progress of other reform provisions, such as requirements for landlords to pay reasonable relocations costs in the event of health, safety or environmental hazards; a process for withholding incentive fees if landlords haven’t met established guidelines and procedures; establishment of a standard for minimum credentials for health and environmental inspectors of privatized military housing; and a requirement for installation commanders to approve mold mitigation and pest control plans.
The senators advised Esper to convene a temporary housing advisory group of independent experts. “Multiple perspectives and deep expertise in housing, state and local housing regulations, and environmental hazards are necessary to make stronger agreements. Clearly, these areas are not the core expertise of Pentagon leadership, nor are they part of a military leader’s career trajectory,” they wrote.
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.