The Defense Department came under fire Tuesday for its response to problems at privatized military housing, with criticisms ranging from faulty satisfaction surveys to oversight that falls short.
The Senate Armed Services Committee originally convened the hearing with top leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to hear about progress since problems came to light months ago in Hampton Roads and around the country.
Instead, questions focused on why problems continue to persist. The panel’s chairman, Sen. James Inhofe, said reports of sickening mold, poor workmanship and slow response to problems remains a national crisis.
Inhofe, R-Okla., said: “To our witnesses from the department, I have to ask, when is enough enough?”
“The time for talk is is over,” he added. “If these companies can’t get the job done, you owe it to the military families to find a company who will.”
Testimony began with a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that described several issues with the department’s attempts to get a handle on the problem. The findings included the following, as described by Elizabeth A. Field, GAO director of defense capabilities and management:
Limited oversight: In some cases, walk-through inspections meant to gauge conditions on base were limited to a few homes.
Assessing private housing providers: Companies were graded on how quickly they responded to a maintenance complaint, not if the problem was addressed. The military interpreted high occupancy rates as indicating satisfaction, yet families told GAO other factors, such as access to schools or health care, influenced their decision to live in privatized homes.
Survey question: Instead of a question that stated “Would you recommend privatized housing?” military families were asked if they would “recommend this community to others?”
That last item caught the attention of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who noted the survey cited an 87% overall resident satisfaction rate. But the context of “communities” is unclear.
“What does that mean?” Kaine asked. “My neighborhood? Fort Belvoir? Fairfax County? Northern Virginia? The fact that the answer to that question is 87% tells us precisely nothing about what people think about their housing.”
He added: “I’m trying to determine whether I’m accidentally misled or intentionally misled.”
The Defense Department has revised the question for this year, Military Times reported.
The nation’s top civilian and military leaders stressed that they are making progress. Reforms included the addition of housing advocates, site visits and beefed up town hall-style meetings to get better feedback from residents.
They urged passage of the defense authorization bill, which contains a number of reforms, including measures relating to a tenants’ bill of rights.
Some committee members credited the military with taking positive steps, but said more must be done.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said he’s still getting complaints from residents who say they must sign non-disclosure agreements to keep from airing their problems in public.
Echoing Inhofe, Tillis asked: “When is enough enough?”
“We might be there right now,” said Army Secretary Ryan. D. McCarthy.
That was echoed to certain degree by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly and Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett.
Major housing providers, including companies that provide the bulk of privatized military homes in Hampton Roads, are scheduled to appear Thursday before the House Armed Services Committee.
Earlier this year, Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., held public forums in Newport News and Norfolk with military families, at one point expressing his frustration at the lack of progress.
“The services have increased their efforts, but it’s not enough,” he tweeted Tuesday. “We need fundamental changes — more oversight and accountability for both the military and private housing contractors.”
Along with Reuters, the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) called attention to housing problems through two surveys that cited reports of vermin, leaks, filth and structural issues.
The group on Tuesday announced the formation of a military housing roundtable to address ongoing problems. The roundtable will bring together organizations and federal agencies to share ideas and discuss reforms.
It is sponsored by Wells Fargo.
MFAN recognizes that shortfalls and challenges exposed by its research is not going to be an easy fix,” said Shannon Razasdin, executive director. “Improving military housing will require a sustained effort from all involved.”
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