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As housing complaints mount, military leaders say reforms are underway

Then-Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper speaks before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dec. 7, 2017. (U.S. Army/Released)

A panel of military leaders said Thursday that they are addressing mounting concerns of dilapidated housing across the country and subsequent health concerns with a series of new efforts.

Service secretaries and chiefs told a Senate panel that they have a slew of military housing visits underway, meetings with the seven private companies that manage the residences and a new tenant bill of rights.

The problems began when military leadership left its oversight role when private contractors took over management of the residences in the 1990s, the military leaders said.

“I think the chain of command, over the past 20 years, has slowly walked away from being involved in the housing of our soldiers and their families,” Army Secretary Mark Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The concerns have coalesced into what appears to be the largest crisis to hit military housing since a 1996 privatization initiative let outside contractors take control of the homes. Previously, the military managed these properties.

In recent months, the military services have hosted dozens of town halls on bases in recent months. In recent weeks, top leaders have personally visited a slew of military installations. And some families, previously afraid to speak for fear of retaliation, are increasingly coming forward.

On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee held its second hearing on the housing concerns to examine the chain of command’s role in the crisis with service secretaries and chiefs.

“I have asked the chain of command from each services here today because of the health, safety and welfare of our service members are the responsibility to everyone, from the secretary to the squad leader,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee chairman, said in his opening remarks. “Plain and simple. The chain of command failed to take care of its own and lost their trust. Now the chain of command must regain that trust.”

The service secretaries and chiefs seemed to agree that they all had a role to play in the recent failures, and the fixes that are expected to come.

“Recent reports of substandard conditions in some of our military housing units are deeply troubling,” Esper said. “It is unacceptable for our families who sacrifice so much for our country to endure these hardships. ….We are fully committed to solving this problem.”

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said military leaders are also revisiting agreements with private contractors.

“I want to start by apologizing personally on behalf of the department of the Navy,” he said. “It is clear in many cases, we have fallen woefully short of this obligation and upon reviewing the issues surrounding housing, it is apparent there is culpability around the table.”

The service secretaries and chiefs went on to say that they have directed a series of in-person visits to military installations by leadership and a series of internal reviews and inspector general probes.

Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s chief of staff, said the changes will take time.

“This entire issue is the cumulative effect of a decade or almost 20 years of multiple problems. This is not going to be solved in 60 days, 90 days, a single bill of rights. This is going to be a concerted effort, multiple hearings,” Milley said. “Over time, it’s going to take a considerable level of effort by all of us at this table. The Congress and all the chains of command and the contractors to get after this thing. It’s going to take a sustained level of effort.”

A day earlier, military leaders also released a drafted, 12-point tenant bill of rights to circulate among lawmakers. Esper said he hoped it could be finalized with their input in the coming weeks.

The bill of rights highlights residents’ rights to housing advocates, prompt repairs, dispute resolution, mediation and repairs, and withholding of Basic Allowance for Housing during a dispute. The bill of rights also states residents should have no fear of reprisals.

But some questions still remain, such as who would function as arbitrator under the current draft, said Crystal Cornwall, a Marine spouse who is in the midst of launching a new nonprofit called Safe Military Housing Initiative after running into her own residential nightmares and hearing hundreds of other cases from other military families.

And other questions remain on how construction deficiencies could be addressed for military housing and what next steps should be considered, lawmakers said.

“There is clear evidence of negligence, perhaps fraud, breach of contract, with regard to the contractors and the way that they have in some cases managed their responsibilities,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. “Why have we not taken these contractors to court, suing them on behalf of our families and our government and is the government too cozy with these contractors to show them what they have done is wrong, perhaps immoral, and in some cases outright illegal?”


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