- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Surveys touted by Pentagon officials as evidence that most residents of the Defense Department’s privatized military housing system are satisfied with their living arrangements are questionable at best, according to a report issued Tuesday by a key government watchdog agency.

The vast system that provides housing for military families on bases across the country remains plagued by systemic problems and sloppy record-keeping, the report by the Government Accountability Office said.

People in the housing are living with mold, rodent infestations and “repeated” sewage leaks, said Elizabeth Field, GAO director of defense capabilities. She testified to lawmakers on Capitol Hill after the release of a report based on an investigation of facilities on 10 bases across the nation.

“They are indicative of the type of concerns we heard from military families living in privatized housing at installations across the country,” Ms. Field told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a hearing, where lawmakers asked pointed questions of military chiefs.

For more than two hours, senators grilled the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, along with the senior uniformed members of each military service, who appeared before the Armed Services committee alongside Ms. Field.

Lawmakers from both parties called on Pentagon officials to crack down on landlords who aren’t providing military members with safe and high-quality homes and pointed to holes in the Defense Department’s oversight of the privatized housing system.

“The time for talk is over,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and the committee’s chairman. He asserted that lawmakers continue to get reports from service members based across the country about the squalor they are forced to live in and the landlords who don’t seem to care.

If the network of more than a dozen private companies hired by the Pentagon to manage upkeep of base housing “cannot get the job done, you owe it to our military families to find a company who will,” Mr. Inhofe told the service chiefs.

Mr. Inhofe specifically called out Balfour Beatty Communities, which manages military housing at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, as one of the worst offenders.

“Why is it that they’re still there?” he asked.

Several service members and their families attended the hearing. Some spoke openly with The Washington Times about their negative experiences in the base housing system.

Mauren Elliott and her family have been forced to move several times because of appalling housing conditions at Ford Hood, Texas, where her Army husband is assigned. They emptied their family savings to attend the hearing in Washington.

“I have five children, all of whom have medical conditions brought on by the poor conditions of the housing,” Mrs. Elliott told The Times. “My family’s belongings are being inventoried as we speak to then be disposed of. My husband has been in the military for 18 years — he’s nearing his retirement — and we’re having to start all over again.”

She said they have are “the clothes on our back.”

“Everything we own as a family of seven can fit in the back of our minivan,” Mrs. Elliott said.

Questionable oversight

Investigators with the GAO visited 10 bases and conducted 15 town hall meetings with residents to gauge their concerns about privatized military housing.

They also reviewed 8 million maintenance work orders — culled from every private military housing company — to detect any pattern. But some work orders were duplicates while others listed completion dates prior to when they were submitted.

“Because the data in these records are not captured reliably or consistently, they cannot be used,” Ms. Field told lawmakers.

As late as May, Pentagon officials have claimed the privatized housing to be a success “overall.” But GAO officials question how the Department of Defense came to that conclusion.

Ms. Field said Defense Department officials use two metrics to mark success in their privatized housing: a tenant satisfaction survey and occupancy levels.

Both have serious flaws, she said.

Pentagon officials in May touted an 87% satisfaction rate with the privatized housing program.

Ms. Field said the 87% figure is “not in any way reliable.” She added that the inaccuracy could be blamed on how the survey questions were asked as well as how the results were compiled and calculated.

Ms. Field also raised issue with Pentagon claims that a reported 93% occupancy rate at military housing is an indicator of success. “Family members often chose to live in privatized housing for reasons that have nothing to do with the housing itself,” she said.

Some stay in on-post housing because of educational or medical needs for a family member or because living off base is cost-prohibitive, Ms. Field said.

Decidedly pointed questions

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Illinois Democrat and an Iraq War veteran, asked why no one in the Defense Department has been fired because of the housing debacle.

Sen. Martha McSally, Arizona Republican and a retired Air Force pilot, referred to the privatized housing companies as “slumlords” and challenged them to spend the holidays in the substandard homes they force military members to live in.

Mrs. Elliot, the Army spouse who spoke with The Times, said the comment was “quite an accurate portrayal.”

Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy told lawmakers that steps have been taken to address the issues raised in the GAO report, including commander-driven town halls and 24-hour help lines to hear feedback from affected families.

The Army has also assigned housing responsibilities to four-star Gen. Gus Perna, head of the Army Materiel Command.

“We must fix the current housing crisis using a ‘house to house’ approach,” Mr. McCarthy said. “While the Army has worked hard over the past 10 months to make significant strides in the way we managed privatized housing, there is much more work to do.”

He suggested creating a tenant’s “bill of rights,” crossing all military branches, that could give families in privatized housing an “active voice and avenues for recourse.”

The immediate focus is to remedy the problems that can be fixed now through ensuring work orders are completed and improving management, Mr. McCarthy said.

Sen. Thom Tillis, North Carolina Republican, said some of the military families at bases in his state tell him some of the privatized housing companies are even forcing their tenants to sign nondisclosure agreements to keep them from speaking out about the housing conditions.

“When is enough enough?,” Mr. Tillis asked.

“We might be there right now,” Mr. McCarthy replied.

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