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Military housing reforms included in new defense blueprint

Military Privatized Housing (U.S. Air Force/Released)
December 12, 2019

Congressional negotiators have agreed on a defense spending blueprint for 2020 that includes reforms aimed at improving privatized military housing.

A legislative summary describes it as “the most substantial overhaul of the Privatized Military Housing Initiative since its creation in 1996.”

Among the measures: a requirement for the services to establish a tenant bill of rights that sets minimum living standards, seeks to improve communication and bans the use of non-disclosure agreements that prevent residents from speaking out about poor conditions.

It directs each military branch to develop guidelines to resolve disputes that include withholding housing payments to contractors until the problem is solved.

Problems at privatized military housing in Hampton Roads and across the country grabbed headlines a year ago after an investigative series by Reuters spotlighted problems ranging from sickening black mold to vermin infestation.

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Surveys by the Military Family Advisory Network also revealed widespread dissatisfaction among military families.

That led to congressional hearings earlier this year, where contrite housing contractors promised to improve and military leaders vowed to be more hands-on in addressing problems.

However, two follow-up hearings held last week showed continued frustration among lawmakers.

Senators slammed military leaders for lax oversight and faulty housing surveys. A House panel gave a similar reception to housing contractors, with Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., calling it “deeply troubling” that reports of problems still persist.

The 2020 bill includes two measures sponsored by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. He and Sen. Mark R. Warner have been outspoken on the issue, with Warner convening two round-table discussions that spotlighted problems in Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

The first measure requires the Defense Department to establish a move-out checklist. This would ensure the tenant is leaving the home in good condition and the housing company has fixed any lingering problems.

In a news release, Kaine said he’s heard from military families who moved into homes with existing problems, while others got hit with maintenance fees after they moved out, making it difficult to dispute.

His second item requires the military to work with local law enforcement to ensure military police can patrol off-base privatized housing. Kaine said this addresses concerns from residents that neither military police nor local law enforcement were responding off base because neither believed they had jurisdiction.

The authorization bill is not the actual defense budget, but it guides lawmakers as they develop a spending plan.

Overall, it authorizes funding for the Department of Defense and the national security programs of the Department of Energy. Its top line is $738 billion, a compromise hammered out by House and Senate negotiators.

It authorizes more than $13 billion for shipbuilding priorities, including aircraft carrier construction and overhaul, and funding for the Virginia and Columbia Class submarines programs, plus nearly $11 billion for ship repair.

On military base construction, it would allow more $430 million for 12 projects in Virginia, including Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, Dam Neck, Yorktown and Richmond.

It now heads to the full Congress.

“I hope we can get this final bill across the finish line without delay,” Kaine said.

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© 2019 the Daily Press