- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2019

Rep. Kendra Horn recalls a town hall meeting in January when the Oklahoma Democrat first heard about deplorable housing conditions at Tinker Air Force Base, located within her district. A military spouse showed her photographs of black mold and other toxic conditions that she and her family were forced to endure.

“I was angry and frustrated and was hoping it was a limited problem. Sadly, it was not,” Ms. Horn said Thursday as a House Armed Services subcommittee focused on mounting complaints about the state of privatized military housing.

Balfour Beatty Communities, which manages the homes at Tinker Air Force Base and more than 50 other military facilities throughout the nation, was represented at the hearing along with officials from four other companies. The Air Force is investigating reports Balfour Beatty employees doctored maintenance records so the company could receive incentive bonuses from the government.

Richard C. Taylor, president of facility operations, renovations and construction for Balfour Beatty, insisted the company is undergoing a “transformation” about how they operate.

“We are working hard to regain the trust and confidence of our residents and our military partners. We have learned a lot [and] it is truly humbling,” Mr. Taylor said.

“You have a lot of work to do,” Ms. Horn said.

Mr. Taylor, who spent 12 years in the Navy as a civil engineer, said the creation of his position was part of that company-wide overhaul. The company is also beefing up its customer service training and working with regional engineering specialist whenever concerns about toxic homes are raised. Mr. Taylor said they are cooperating with the Department of Justice and have hired an outside counsel to conduct their own inquiry into charges of doctored records.

“Balfour Beatty Communities take the issue of fraud very seriously,” Mr. Taylor said, adding that at least 17 manager-level employees have been fired over problems that have arisen.

Military housing was once an entirely government-run affair. That all changed in 1996 with the implementation of the Military Housing Privatization Initiative. In theory, the public-private partnership was intended to pump some much-needed private cash into renovating and upgrading base housing, which private contractors say was, in some cases, in badly degraded conditions.

“The homes that we inherited were in terrible shape and in many cases uninhabitable,” said John G. Picerne, founder of the Corvias Group, which manages housing at more than a dozen military bases across nine states.

In addition to pumping millions of dollars into renovating and constructing military homes, Mr. Picerne said his company also is creating resident advocates in their communities and moving service call centers to the military installations as well.

Both Democrats and Republicans on the House panel peppered the private housing executives with barbed questions and comments.

Fort Drum, home of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, falls within the congressional district of Rep Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican. She said Thursday that too many military family members there feel like they don’t have a voice when dealing with their private landlords.

“These are families who have faced multiple deployments,” Ms. Stefanik said. “It is extremely important to me that [the soldiers] not have the stress about their families at home about housing.”

Subcommittee Chairman John Garamendi said a military housing tenant “Bill of Rights” will soon be completed and is expected to “deal with many of the issues that we’ve heard.” The lease contracts also will be scrutinized.

Mr. Garamendi said the Pentagon deserves some of the blame for the living conditions of those in the ranks.

“The base commanders did not take responsibility, but that is changing and the Pentagon is well aware of it,” Mr. Garamendi said. “We will see to it.”

Another hearing is scheduled in the Spring. Rep. Garamendi warned that housing companies who didn’t attend Thursday’s hearing also will be held accountable for their living conditions.

“This hearing is one of a series. We will not let this issue go,” he said.

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