Senators to DOD: Address ‘bad actors’ among military landlords

Part of congressional focus on improving the quality of housing on military bases

Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren and other senators want the Pentagon to force laggard housing contractors to provide a "tenant bill of rights" as required by law.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren and other senators want the Pentagon to force laggard housing contractors to provide a "tenant bill of rights" as required by law. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 15, 2022 at 9:00am

After learning that one-third of the private landlords on U.S. military bases have failed to guarantee servicemembers a complete “tenant bill of rights” required by law, five senators have asked the Pentagon to force the companies to do so.

In a six-page letter sent Monday to Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and obtained by CQ Roll Call, the senators urged him to change or kill contracts with these companies if necessary.

“The vast majority of the military housing providers have voluntarily agreed to uphold these rights, and it is time to address the remaining bad actors,” the senators said. If the companies “continue to refuse to provide these rights,” they added, “we urge DoD to exercise its right to terminate these agreements.”

The signatories were Democrats Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii and Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina — all members of the Armed Services Committee — plus Democrat Jon Ossoff of Georgia, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which has conducted probes of the military landlords.

10,000 homes

Congress has been intently focused in recent years on improving the quality of housing on military bases, especially since news reports started emerging four years ago showing the prevalence of problems such as leaks, mold and asbestos contamination.

The tenant bill of rights — set forth in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act — was meant to ensure that processes would be in place to solve or prevent such conditions.

But it was predicated on the contractors’ voluntary acceptance of its terms. In most cases, that has happened. But the exceptions have been significant.

According to a Pentagon inspector general report last month, five of the 14 landlords who operate U.S. military housing have failed to guarantee tenants one or more of the rights — namely 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.

Such requirements are critical to ensuring landlords make good on promised repairs, the senators observed in their letter.

A Pentagon official said last month that only 4 percent of military families live in housing operated by these five companies.

However, that is still some 10,000 homes located on some of the most well-known bases in America.

The five contractors and locations are:

  • 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

Mandates not ‘optional’

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this report. Previously, Defense Department officials have said, in effect, that they cannot require the contractors to take actions that are not stipulated in their contracts, which were first signed in 1996.

But the senators told Austin the department does have legal authorities it can tap to modify or end the contracts.

“Congress did not intend for military housing companies’ compliance with the tenant bill of rights and other important provisions of the 2020 NDAA to be optional,” their letter said. “Congress put mandates in place to protect military families, and DoD must use all tools at its disposal to enforce these mandates. Allowing military families’ rights to be subject to the whims of private military housing contractors creates an unacceptable level of inequity.”

The Pentagon inspector general also found the services were not adequately tracking information on the number of military housing units or occupancy data.

“This lack of data makes it impossible for DoD to conduct all required housing program oversight and ensure that service members and their families have access to safe and clean housing,” said the senators, who posed 15 questions to Austin to get to the bottom of enforcing the law on housing contractors.

NDAA issue

The Senate’s fiscal 2023 NDAA includes language written by Warren and Tillis that 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.

The House’s NDAA, meanwhile, would require the Defense Department to provide Congress with an annual briefing on the status of private housing deals and would require that lawmakers be notified whenever a housing contractor’s lease term is extended.

The Senate may or may not bring its NDAA to the floor in the next five work weeks. If senators do not debate it, House and Senate negotiators will, barring a huge surprise, hammer out the NDAA’s final version and then put it to the two chambers for a vote before sending it to the White House, as has happened for 61 years in a row.