- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Army leaders met with bankers and private investors last week to discuss plans for pumping more money into the service’s troubled privatized housing program, which has been accused of failing to provide safe and adequate homes for military members and their families.

Pentagon officials are hoping a major infusion of additional cash will address a problem that has been a source of complaints, lawsuits and critical audits over the years.

Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy said officials are on track to invest up to $2.8 billion more for Army housing over the next five years.

“New construction is already underway, and much more is coming,” Mr. McCarthy said at the Association of the U.S. Army conference.

The investments will mean the construction of 3,800 homes and the renovation of more than 18,000 houses at Army bases across the country, Mr. McCarthy said.

Some aren’t so optimistic about the Army’s housing initiative. They say the service’s track record leaves plenty of room for skepticism.

Texas-based lawyer Jim Moriarty is a Vietnam War veteran and Gold Star father whose Green Beret son was killed in November 2016 while serving in Jordan. He is representing several hundred military families in lawsuits against the housing companies.

Mr. Moriarty doubts the Army’s recapitalization plan will make a significant impact on the service’s exploding housing crisis.

“It isn’t going to do anything except pour more gasoline on the fire. It’s throwing money down a rat hole,” he said. “Where is the strategy? Where is the plan? They haven’t changed anything.”

Mr. Moriarty said the problems can be traced to the 1990s, when the Pentagon handed over nearly all family housing on U.S. military bases to private contractors to operate for profit under a program called the Military Housing Privatization Initiative. A handful of companies now control more than 200,000 housing units at bases throughout the country.

“What has happened to military housing is one of the great scandals of my life,” he said. “We turned over the health and welfare of our service members to Wall Street.”

By turning over military homes to private companies, commanders have largely washed their hands of any responsibility for the conditions under which their troops are living, Mr. Moriarty said.

“Ownership is one of the key ingredients to capitalism. It’s the reason you take better care of your car than a rental,” he said. “But nobody ‘owns’ the military property. No commander has the power to do anything about it.”

Pentagon officials organized a summit in January to take stock of some 6,700 barracks housing soldiers in the U.S. and around the world. The review found that virtually every post had at least one barracks that rated in the bottom or next-to-last tier in a four-grade quality monitoring scale, the website Military.com reported.

Whether it is owned by the U.S. military or a private company, any building on an Army post is ultimately the responsibility of the commander, said Gen. James C. McConville, the Army chief of staff.

“The commander is in charge of every function on a military base,” he said at the AUSA conference. “They need to understand that and we need to hold them accountable.”

To help commanders keep on top of the problem, the Army has authorized the hiring of installation management staffers throughout the base network.

One of the military housing companies, Balfour Beatty, has been accused of falsifying maintenance records in order to receive performance bonuses at military installations.

“These charges come as Balfour Beatty is dealing with other, extensive problems with the military housing they manage, like mold, poor construction and chemical exposure,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said in a joint statement last year.

Army officials said they have made real progress since then and have implemented a number of initiatives to address the housing issue. Gen. McConville said the Army now has the financial means to put in significant resources.

In addition to refurbishing or building homes for military families, the Army said it will spend nearly $10 billion over the next decade to repair barracks that house single soldiers.

If barracks need repairs or pose health hazards, the troops must speak up about the conditions, said Sergeant Major of the Army Michael A. Grinston.

“If I was at home and the washer and dryer didn’t work … I would demand that someone come fix that,” Sgt. Maj. Grinston said. “We have to demand the same thing in our barracks.”

Unit leaders need to examine barracks regularly to make sure the living conditions for the troops are safe, he said.

“Show our soldiers that we care. It’s OK to walk through the barracks,” Sgt. Maj. Grinston said.

The Army has made great strides improving oversight and accountability since squalid conditions at privatized military housing units throughout the country first became headline news, Mr. McCarthy said.

“We owe it to our families and our service members to do much, much more,” he said.

• Mike Glenn can be reached at mglenn@washingtontimes.com.

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