No home for the holidays

Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy (left) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va., right) say the National Defense Authorization Act will improve accountability for private military housing contractors at Fort Belvoir.

Thirty families who live in private housing at Fort Belvoir are still unable to return to their homes despite promises by military leaders and members of Congress to address systemic issues that left many service members and their families dealing with mold, rodent infestations, and other hazardous living conditions.

Accompanied by Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) met with two families who have been displaced from their military housing in recent months during a tour of Fort Belvoir on Dec. 2, one day before the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the military’s response to reports of poor privatized housing conditions and services.

Kaine previously toured Fort Belvoir and hosted a round table discussion with affected families on Mar. 14. He was joined then by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Dr. Mark Esper, who served as secretary of the Army until he was sworn in as Secretary of Defense on July 23 and replaced in the position by McCarthy.

While some improvements have been made since then, Kaine says many challenges remain, and Congress is still working on passing legislation that will give the military more tools for holding private contractors accountable for the quality of their work.

“It’s going to take some time, but what we need to see is we need to see steady progress,” Kaine said. “We need to see soldiers and their families who feel like they're being listened to and they’re being treated with respect and that they’re getting answers, and we are a long way from being there.”

The armed forces have contracted private companies to build and maintain housing on military installations around the U.S. since Congress established the Military Housing Privatization Initiative in 1996.

The Army now relies on private partners with its Residential Communities Initiative for 98 percent of its U.S. family housing inventory, which translates to more than 86,000 homes on 44 different installations.

Fort Belvoir alone has 2,154 homes, including 1,192 new structures, 170 historic houses, 266 legacy houses that were renovated by the Army before 2003, and 526 houses that recently underwent major renovations.

Issues with the military’s privatized housing started emerging publicly in August 2018 when Reuters reported a series of stories on residents’ complaints of lead poisoning, mold, rodents, shoddy construction, and a lack of responsiveness and transparency from private landlords as well as lax oversight and enforcement on the part of the armed services.

Military leaders have promised to address these existing issues and to implement measures that will hold private contractors accountable while making the housing system safer and more effective in the future.

As secretary of the Army, Esper pledged to have the Army conduct inspections of all houses and suspended the utility payment program for the Residential Communities Initiative. He also suggested renegotiating individual tenant contracts and incentive agreements.

Esper planned to evaluate staffing at each base to ensure there are enough personnel to handle quality control issues and other customer service needs.

In recent months, the Fort Belvoir garrison command has been leading monthly resident focus groups and quarterly town halls on housing.

Fort Belvoir has created “levels of escalation” to clarify the chain of command for resolving issues, a garrison command housing hotline, and a housing mobile application to track work orders. The installation has also increased resources allocated to preventative maintenance and life, health, and safety inspections, according to the Fort Belvoir public affairs office.

Despite these efforts, many military families remain frustrated by the quality of remediation work intended to address their housing issues and by the contractors’ apparent reluctance to take their complaints seriously, Kaine says.

One family told the senator that workers insisted they had fixed the problems in their house, but an independent inspection by the soldier revealed the old, problematic insulation had not been replaced.

Families have also uncovered lingering mold. Both of the families that met with Kaine include young children who have experienced allergic reactions, hives, and in one case, an anaphylactic shock.

“It’s heart-sickening,” Kaine said.

McCarthy says that outside investment capital was needed when Congress first authorized the military to work with private contractors on housing, but he admits the Army has lapsed in its management and oversight responsibilities particularly over the past 10 years.

“Across the board, there were failures, systemic failures within the institution,” McCarthy said, noting that, across the service, the Army now needs to recapitalize on over 23,000 privatized homes along with about 2,000 houses that are Army-owned.

Relief for affected military families may be on the horizon in the form of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes appropriations for Fiscal Year 2020 and establishes policies for the Department of Defense, military construction, and the Department of Energy’s national security programs.

Among the bill’s provisions is a series of reforms that Kaine, Warner, and Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) first proposed in March as part of an Ensuring Safe Housing for our Military Act.

The senators’ proposals were incorporated in the National Defense Authorization Act when the bill was introduced on June 11 by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

If adopted by Congress in its current state, the NDAA will allow the armed services to withhold basic allowance for housing payments to private housing contractors if there is a dispute with a service member over housing conditions.

The military could withhold incentive fees if contractors do not fix health and environmental hazards, and contractors would be required to pay relocation costs if a service member has to temporarily leave their house due to an environmental or health hazard.

Under the FY 2020 NDAA, contractors would be required to give service members access to their electronic work order systems, allowing tenants to track the progress of requests. The military would also be obligated to establish a common credentials system for health and safety inspectors.

“This is how we’re getting an informed customer, so they know what their rights are as the customer, a bill of rights,” McCarthy said. “Putting this into law will empower them.”

The National Defense Authorization Act has been in conference committees since September as legislators try to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, but Kaine believes it will be finalized before Dec. 25.

While Congress works on the NDAA, some military families have turned to legal avenues in the meantime.

10 families stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland filed a lawsuit against the base’s management company and landlord Corvias Management-Army and Meade Communities LLC on Nov. 12, Federal News Network reported last month.

The families allege that their homes were plagued by toxic mold, excessive moisture, standing sewage water, and other health risks. Attorneys asked the U.S. District Court for Maryland to certify the case as a class action lawsuit, which would let residents in more than 800 homes on Fort Meade receive compensation if there is a settlement.

Despite the ongoing issues with the quality of privatized housing, the military is not planning to cut ties with its private partners.

Kaine says he wants to see what kind of impact reforms – both those included in the NDAA and ones implemented independently by the different military branches – have before contemplating more drastic measures.

“Some of the housing companies are running their military program completely differently than they run the program for private tenants,” Kaine said. “…All we have to do is hold them to the expectation that they already meet in the private side of their portfolio. It’s not that they can’t do it. They can. We just have to pressure them until they do.”

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