Lawmakers are incensed about a new Pentagon report’s finding that more than one-third of private landlords on U.S. military bases are not guaranteeing tenants’ rights that are enshrined in law.
The Pentagon inspector general, in a report made public this week, found that five of the 14 housing contractors — which collectively own and operate more than 10,000 homes for servicemembers and their families — have not fully implemented a “tenant bill of rights” set forth in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
Each of the five contractors has failed to implement one or more of the following three tenant rights: making available past maintenance records for properties; setting up dispute resolution processes; and allowing tenants to put rent payments in escrow until disputes are settled.
What’s more, the IG said, housing officials at military installations have botched implementation of a computer system for documenting oversight of health, safety and environmental hazards in military homes.
The IG’s report credited the Pentagon, the services and the contractors with implementing most elements of the 18-item tenant bill of rights and for making progress in fulfilling other statutory requirements.
However, the report’s documented shortfalls by five companies in implementing three key parts of the bill of rights have irked members of the Armed Services panels from both parties who have seen the document.
“It’s unacceptable that privatized military housing contractors continue to drag their feet in providing military families the information and rights they deserve to live in safe homes,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said via email.
Missouri Republican Josh Hawley, who, like Warren, serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, agreed.
“This is yet another example of the Department failing to provide servicemembers the quality housing they deserve,” Hawley said, also via email. “I’ve seen these failures first hand touring Fort Leonard Wood in my home state of Missouri. It’s unacceptable. I will continue to hold the Department accountable for failing our servicemembers and their families.”
The crux of the problem, according to the IG and other Pentagon officials, is that the tenants’ rights in law are essentially not enforceable, because the companies must volunteer to do anything not stipulated in the 50-year contracts most of them signed in 1996.
“However, despite DoD officials’ attempts to seek agreement from the landlords, not all landlords have agreed to voluntarily include” the three tenant rights, the report said. “This occurred because the landlords are not legally required to retroactively include the three FY 2020 NDAA provisions in existing legal agreements.”
The companies identified as having failed to fully honor the tenant bill of rights are firms that run the housing at some of the biggest U.S. military installations:
- Boyer Hill Military Housing at Hill Air Force Base, or AFB, in Utah
- Burlington Capital Real Estate at Offutt AFB, Nebraska
- JL Properties at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska
- Miller-Valentine Group at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio
- United Communities at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey
The military has nearly 200 installations with privatized housing, and those five contractors house just 4 percent of military families, a defense official wrote in an email.
The official added that talks are ongoing with the contractors about implementing all the tenants rights.
The Department of Defense “remains steadfast in our commitment to ensure that Military Housing Privatization Initiative, or MHPI, housing projects provide safe, quality, well-maintained housing where our military members and their families will want and choose to live,” the defense official said.
Rats and mold
Nonetheless, the report suggests at least some military families may still not be getting access to quality homes, or at least access to a process to ensure they get them.
“Until things are required by law and until things are the same across the board and across the United States, it’s still going to be ineffective and it’s still going to have families coming to us for help,” said Kate Needham, executive director and co-founder of the Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a group that defends the rights of military tenants, in an interview. “The housing companies are not going to renegotiate contracts for something that is going to inconvenience them.”
A series of Reuters stories, beginning in 2018, disclosed rampant problems at privatized military base housing, such as leaks, mold and asbestos. The stories also revealed attempts by some contractor personnel to cover up the problems.
Other issues, such as rodent infestations and lead paint in military homes, have also surfaced in news reports and audits over the last four years.
Last December, Balfour Beatty Communities LLC, which operates some 43,000 U.S. military residences for 150,000 military families, pleaded guilty and paid $65 million in criminal fines and civil settlements for falsifying maintenance records so the company could keep earning large performance bonuses.
An April report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations suggested Balfour Beatty has been engaged since 2019 in similar and “ongoing mistreatment” of military families.
In January of this year, Hunt Cos. paid the government $500,000 to settle similar allegations about its operation of homes at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, though the company did not admit fault.
Warren called the IG’s new report “the latest example that more oversight is needed” of housing contractors.
Warren and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., added an amendment to the Senate’s fiscal 2023 NDAA that would “hold the Department of Defense and these companies accountable for failing military families,” Warren said.
The amendment would set up a Department of Defense Military Housing Readiness Council, which would comprise senior Defense Department civilians, uniformed personnel, outside experts, military spouses and congressionally appointed members.
The council would make recommendations, monitor compliance with requirements and issue public reports.
Senate leaders want to take up the NDAA after the November elections.
A bipartisan group of House members led by Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., an Armed Services member, introduced similar legislation in August. Other leading supporters are Republican Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma and Democrats Katie Porter of California and Tim Ryan of Ohio, who is running for Senate to replace Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is retiring.
The House-passed version of the NDAA also addresses the issue. It would require the Defense Department to provide Congress with an annual briefing on the health and status of private housing deals. And it would require that lawmakers be notified whenever a housing contractor’s lease term is extended.