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Military agrees to make privatized housing reforms by May — but not everything on Congress’s list

Military Privatized Housing (U.S. Air Force/Released)

Following widespread complaints of mold, rats and poor management from the companies that run private military housing, the Department of Defense said this week it would implement all but of a handful of reforms mandated by Congress by May 1.

The move could provide some relief for sailors and their families who live in Lincoln Military Housing here in Hampton Roads, where a recent survey showed some of the lowest housing satisfaction rates in the country, and where Sen. Tim Kaine called the conditions in some units near Naval Station Norfolk “intolerable.”

To fix the issues, Congress passed legislation declaring that military service members and their families who live in privatized housing have 18 “rights.”

They include the right to live in housing and a community that meets applicable health and environmental standards, the right to have access to an electronic work order system that tenants can request maintenance and track their progress through, and the right to receive advice from military legal assistance on procedures for resolving disputes with property managers.

The declaration is part of the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2020 fiscal year.

“Finally, some good news for military families facing mold and other dangerous conditions in on-base housing,” U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said in a tweet.

But the defense department said in a statement that three of the reforms will take longer to implement. Those are the right to withhold rent until disputes are resolved, access to maintenance history and a process for dispute resolution. It’s unclear how long it will take.

Warner said in a statement Thursday those three provisions “are absolutely critical.”

“They are essential tools that will increase accountability for these private corporations, mitigate the extreme power imbalance between the companies and servicemembers, and provide needed information so that families (and the service branches) can make more informed decisions,” Warner said. “We expect the administration to stick to the deadlines in the bill, and to provide Congress with target dates for implementation, not vague commitments.”

The defense department said it is “paramount” that residents receive the full benefit of each right, but that “many of the rights set forth by Congress pertain to legal matters that do not lend themselves to unilateral action by the Department. “

The department said it will continue to work with housing companies and Congress to implement all 18.

In August, the Navy released the results of a survey that showed sailors who live in privatized Lincoln Military Housing in Hampton Roads were among the least satisfied among military personnel in the nation.

Their experiences with their homes and the company that manages them ranked 40th out of 42 installations for overall satisfaction.

Local respondents gave their housing an overall score of 61, or “poor.” They also scored their service 61 and gave their property a 59, or “very poor.”

The lack of responsiveness to fix housing issues has drawn the ire of local sailors, their families and members of Congress for years.

“We must continue to address the dangerous conditions that I saw firsthand in military housing across Virginia, including mold issues and safety concerns. Our troops and their families deserve safer housing immediately,” Kaine said in a statement Thursday.

The privatized military housing bill of rights is designed to address many of those issues.

During a recent visit to Norfolk, the Navy’s top admiral said the military had taken its “eye off the ball” after a privatized military housing initiative was signed into law in 1996, turning over construction and management of housing to private companies.

“If you asked any of the service chiefs, I think they’d tell you they’re ashamed of where we found ourselves,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press in an interview.

“What we failed to do is provide sufficient oversight.”

Gilday said the Navy has now implemented a series of measures that give commanding officers better tools to track and resolve problems.

“We’ve got some work to do to get it in a place where we’re completely comfortable and sustain it,” he said. “But I think we’re heading in the right direction.”


© 2020 The Virginian-Pilot