Lawmakers want stronger oversight of troops’ housing conditions

Legislation would create a Military Housing Readiness Council to monitor housing quality

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is leading a push for more oversight over military housing.   (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is leading a push for more oversight over military housing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 3, 2022 at 10:29am

Members of Congress are clamoring again this year for the Pentagon to do more to oversee housing contractors that have often failed to ensure that military family homes are free of unhealthy or unsafe conditions.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers filed legislation in both chambers Tuesday that would require the Pentagon to create a Military Housing Readiness Council to monitor housing quality and report publicly on its findings.

The council would comprise Defense Department officials, servicemembers, military families and military housing experts. It would oversee the implementation of policies and regulations, including a so-called tenants’ bill of rights and a public complaint database, two initiatives that critics say have yet to be fully realized.

The requirement for the council would be the latest in a series of steps Congress has taken to get a hold on the problems. It is already in the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act that the Senate expects to take up sometime after it returns from its August recess. But the provision is not in the House NDAA.

The Senate authors are Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren and North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis. In the House, California Democrat Sara Jacobs and Oklahoma Republican Stephanie Bice planned to introduce a companion version.

“For too long, many of our service members and military families have lived in unsafe privatized military housing with black mold, collapsed roofs, or exposed electrical wires because DOD is falling behind in proper oversight and providing safe housing to these service members,” Warren said in an emailed statement to CQ Roll Call. “The bipartisan Military Housing Readiness Council Act will create a Council with a strong mandate to conduct oversight of military housing, collect public complaints, and report its work to Congress — ensuring that military families receive the safe housing conditions they deserve.”

Three years of probes

A Reuters investigation in the summer of 2019 — and numerous audits and criminal probes since then – have documented how some of the Defense Department’s leading housing contractors have failed to ensure adequate quality in military family homes.

In fact, the Justice Department secured a conviction last year of one of those top contractors, Balfour Beatty, for pretending to do repairs that never actually happened in order to pocket millions of dollars in performance awards.

The company runs 43,000 residences for 150,000 U.S. military family members in 26 states, according to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Investigations Subcommittee.

That panel found in an April report that the problems appear to be ongoing.

The Justice Department reached a settlement in January 2022 with another top Pentagon contractor, Hunt Companies, which had been accused of engaging in a pattern of fraud similar to Balfour Beatty’s.

The Government Accountability Office reported in March that the Pentagon has made progress in monitoring housing problems but still has work to do. The department is limited in its power, the auditors said, by contracts that the 14 major military housing companies have with individual bases — arrangements that give the companies more legal power than most Pentagon contractors have.

Provisions galore

Congress has enacted a number of requirements in the last couple of years to address unacceptable living conditions in some privatized military housing units — including mold, vermin, asbestos, lead paint and leaks. Despite some progress, many of the problems reportedly have continued — and proposed solutions have yet to be fully implemented, critics say.

Already this year, the Armed Services and Appropriations panels in both chambers have included a number of provisions that aim to do more to address the problem.

The House-passed NDAA, for example, would require the armed services to brief the House Armed Services Committee before executing any lease-term extension for a privatized military military housing project. The bill also mandates an annual Defense Department briefing for lawmakers on the health and status of military housing privatization projects.

The Senate’s NDAA, besides including the requirement to create the council, would make the Pentagon designate the assistant secretary for energy, installations and environment to be the chief housing officer – the point person, in other words, for overseeing the quality of military family homes.

The House Appropriations Committee’s MilCon-VA bill, meanwhile, would beef up the budget for military family housing by adding $168.8 million to the $1.96 billion request. The panel’s bill would fund family housing support and management at $373 million “to address issues such as mold, vermin, and lead in military family housing, as well as increased oversight of military privatized housing,” the panel said in a statement in June.

The Senate Appropriations Committee majority’s draft MilCon-VA bill would fund the requested $1.96 billion for family housing. The panel’s report expresses concern that “mold and other dangerous substances are prevalent at some military housing units operated under the Military Housing Privatization Initiative” and urges the Pentagon to evaluate air purification technologies.