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Military Families Battle Rigged Housing Dispute Process

The formal dispute process for military family housing tends to favor the interests of housing companies and silences military families, housing advocates say.

(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO)

The Brewer family suspected there was mold in their home on Marine Corps Base Hawaii the whole time they lived there. They struggled with persistent leaks and flooding, and noticed recurrent discoloration on the ceiling, but maintenance staff would just clean and paint over it, telling them mold wasn’t a concern. The Brewers started getting mysterious health conditions. Michelle Brewer’s hair began falling out, her skin turned a shade of bluish-gray, and she had heart palpitations. Her husband, Marine Corps Captain Daniel Brewer, struggled with persistent fatigue, and his headaches from past traumatic brain injuries were worse than ever before. Their three daughters all started having skin issues and two had stomach problems. One of their dogs began getting head tremors, the other had rashes. But Michelle had an underlying autoimmune disorder, and she wasn’t sure what to think of the new health challenges for the family. “They said there’s no mold, so I believed them,” she said.

Then, after the family moved out of the home in January 2023, they received a staggering move-out charge: $6,237.09 for “BIO HAZARD CLEANING.” Hunt Military Communities, the housing company at Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Oahu, attributed the charges to damages from their pets. But the Brewers said they were skeptical — not only because they didn’t understand how their dogs could have damaged areas in the house like the stairwell and ceilings, but also because the charges on their move-out invoice were $774.30 more than the charges listed on the invoice from the company hired to do biohazard cleaning. Plus, the cleaning company’s invoice was missing all the odd numbered pages, and the Brewers struggled to get answers or additional information from Hunt. Hunt Companies did not respond to a request for comment. When the Brewers’ shipment of belongings arrived from Hawaii blanketed in mold, it was strangely validating. “I know that might seem kind of crazy,” Daniel said. Coupled with the devastation of losing all their belongings was a sense of relief. There had, in fact, been mold after all. 

The Brewers decided to contest the move-out charges, working their way through what is known as the “informal dispute resolution process” for resolving conflicts in military housing, where the service member communicates directly with the housing company to try to sort out the issue. 

Meanwhile, Michelle Brewer’s doctor confirmed elevated levels of three types of mold in her system, all known to cause health problems — particularly in people who are immunocompromised like Michelle. When they didn’t reach a resolution working directly with Hunt, the Brewers considered entering the “formal dispute process,” a method for resolving military housing conflicts that was devised in recent years as part of the Department of Defense’s (DOD) efforts to improve oversight of private military housing companies. In this process, a third party is brought in to investigate the dispute. But the Brewers opted not to enter the formal dispute process — they believed it wouldn’t be decided fairly, would silence them, and could potentially do more harm than good.

The Brewers aren’t alone. The formal dispute process often doesn’t work for service members with housing issues, according to military housing advocates. They say it silences military families who participate in the process and tends to favor the interests of housing companies. “We have not seen the families have any success with it,” said Heather Hall, deputy director of the Safe Military Housing Initiative, a national military housing advocacy organization that has worked with over 5,000 service members and their families. She said nearly every time she’s observed the formal dispute process being used, it has been decided in the housing companies’ favor. The DOD declined to provide information to POGO on how many disputes have been resolved in favor of service members. 

Housing advocates have assisted many military families with similar problems to those of the Brewers, according to Abbigail McCracken. She works as chief communications officer for Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a military housing advocacy group that has worked with more than 2,000 service members and their families on their housing issues. “I wish I could say it’s the only story I’ve heard where that has happened, but it’s not,” she said.

A unique characteristic of military housing is that, for the service member, their boss (the military service) is in a business partnership with their landlord.

Military housing differs from civilian housing in several key ways. Service members often are assigned the location where they live and generally have to move every couple years — meaning that those who decide to live off-base must frequently grapple with housing options in unfamiliar communities. They can face limited and sometimes cost-prohibitive prospects for off-base housing. When they live in military family housing (which is generally located on the military base), they typically do not have the ability to withhold rent if they have a problem that makes their housing unsafe or uninhabitable because their basic allowance for housing is automatically deducted and sent to the housing company. Finally, a unique characteristic of military housing is that, for the service member, their boss (the military service) is in a business partnership with their landlord.

Private companies own and run about 99% of military family housing, generally holding 50-year ground leases and other legal agreements with the Department of Defense. (Military family housing refers to single-family homes, not to be confused with unaccompanied-adult military housing, which is commonly referred to as “barracks.”) The privatization of military family housing began in 1996, when Congress passed the Military Housing Privatization Initiative aiming to mitigate the notoriously poor conditions in DOD-run housing. According to a senior DOD official, this partnership between the military and private companies enabled the DOD to leverage approximately $32 billion in private sector investment with $4 billion of government investment. 

In 2019, following nationally publicized reports by Reuters of unsafe housing and fraudulent practices by military housing companies, Congress sought to increase oversight and created a number of new mechanisms to do so. One of these was the formal dispute process, an alternative option for service members whose housing issues weren’t resolved through the existing informal process for addressing disputes. Another was the ability to withhold rent while going through the dispute resolution process. Access to this process was guaranteed in a new “Tenant Bill of Rights” for service members. But housing company compliance with these new rights was voluntary, since the government couldn’t change the terms of the existing contracts. Plus, the housing companies were involved in negotiations over what ended up in the Tenant Bill of Rights, according to Elizabeth Field of the Government Accountability Office. In other words, the housing companies had a direct hand in shaping what oversight of their own companies would look like.

The practical realities that emerged were a huge disappointment for Hall and her colleague Jean Coffman, executive director and board chair of the Safe Military Housing Initiative. Members of Congress consulted with their organization while the Tenant Bill of Rights was being drafted, so when the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act passed with these new oversight measures, Hall and Coffman were hopeful it would mean that service members could access a fair process for addressing housing issues. The formal dispute process was originally intended to offer families an alternative pathway for resolving issues with their landlord through an independent decision-maker, according to Coffman. But in practice, she said, this process not only often doesn’t offer solutions to families but also silences them. 

That’s because the universal lease for military family housing specifies that confidentiality is required in order to enter the formal dispute process. Created by the Department of Defense in consultation with private military housing companies, the universal lease was intended to standardize leases across the different housing companies. The clause specifies that the process and any remedies or decisions made through it are confidential, cannot be used in court except under certain circumstances, and can be withheld from release through the Freedom of Information Act. Because the confidentiality clause is part of the lease, service members end up agreeing to confidentiality before they even know whether they’ll need to use the formal dispute process in the future.

Members of Congress with oversight responsibility for the military have criticized confidentiality requirements for service members to access this process. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, told POGO, “Military housing contractors shouldn’t be able to use confidentiality clauses to cover up misconduct, and it’s one of my major concerns in seeking better oversight of the Tenants Bill of Rights at the Department of Defense.” Representative John Garamendi (D-CA), who formerly chaired the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, said he thinks the confidentiality clause is something that should be taken up by the subcommittee. “I do not like confidentiality agreements,” he said. “They are specifically, in my view, designed to hide wrongdoing.”    

For the Brewers, the confidentiality requirement was one of the overriding reasons they decided not to enter the formal dispute process. Daniel Brewer, who joined the Marines the day after September 11, 2001, said he considered the formal dispute process in terms of his ethical duty to fellow service members. He felt that if he had allowed himself to be silenced, he’d be doing a disservice to other military members who might be in similar situations in the future. “If I can’t use my experience anymore and make it public, how is that going to change anything?” he asked. 

The other reason the Brewers decided they didn’t want to enter the formal dispute process was that they felt distrustful of the process itself. They were concerned that the supposed independent decision-maker in the process (often one of the higher-ups in the military installation’s command) wasn’t a true third party, since the military and the housing companies are business partners. Furthermore, they worried about what confidentiality and a supposed resolution of the issue would mean if their family’s health problems linked to mold exposure persisted or reemerged in the future. 

Concerns with the fundamental design of the formal dispute process are shared by military housing advocates. “When a base commander has to make decisions on dispute resolutions but [is] considered a working partner with the housing company, it’s not really a ‘third party,’” McCracken told POGO, explaining that true third parties should not have a financial or professional vested interest in the situation. She argued that there should be a truly unbiased third party in order for the formal dispute process to be fair. Situations like these are uncommon in the civilian world, according to Coffman of the Safe Military Housing Initiative. “You don’t have a boss adjudicating a dispute over [their] own organization,” she said. 

[Confidentiality agreements] are specifically, in my view, designed to hide wrongdoing.

Representative John Garamendi (D-CA)

The Department of Defense raised concerns to Congress about “inherent bias” in the formal dispute process when the provision was originally being developed, and pushed for the deciding authority to be an independent third party rather than a higher-up in the installation command, according to documents shared with POGO by a senior Defense official who asked that POGO not publish their name. The official said that the privatized housing companies were worried the process would be skewed in favor of service members because the decision-maker was an official in the military service. In response to a question about tenant concerns with the confidentiality clause, the Defense official underscored that using the formal dispute process is optional. “But if they choose to use it, that is one of the requirements,” the official said. 

Members of Congress have criticized the inefficacy of the formal dispute process broadly, held hearings to delve into ongoing oversight challenges, and investigated the failures of increased DOD oversight efforts. Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) signed a joint letter in July 2023 criticizing the “piecemeal or stove piped manner” through which military housing reforms have been conducted, specifically calling out problems in the implementation of the formal dispute process. “It is vital that the protections and reforms that we have put in place are implemented in a way that works for residents,” they wrote. A spokesperson for Senator Rick Scott (R-FL), who has criticized the use of non-disclosure agreements for military housing issues, said the senator would consider any changes or legislation to ensure military service members can live in safe and healthy homes.

Even the 2023 appropriations bill for military construction and veterans affairs contained a strongly worded condemnation from the appropriations committee of ongoing failures in military housing. “The Committee believes that [privatized military housing] companies have woefully neglected responsibilities outlined in their partnership agreements with the Services,” it said. “The Committee continues to receive evidence of poor housing conditions, inadequate maintenance response times, mishandling of claims, indifference towards the wellbeing of servicemembers and their families, and some incidences of illegal incentive fee fraud.” 

The senior Defense official said that the department has made significant progress on oversight since the service member Tenant Bill of Rights was passed in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, noting that they have hired over 600 additional housing personnel, conducted reviews of each housing project, revised performance metrics, improved requirements for maintenance order tracking, and implemented new inspection requirements for houses. “It’s a lot to try to implement at one time, a lot of training down at the field,” the official said. 

Implementation of the formal dispute process has been uneven so far, according to an April 2023 report by the Government Accountability Office. The report found that few service members are using this process — for most of the military services, the number of service members who have actually used the formal dispute process is in the single digits. The report cites confusion about the formal dispute process as a major barrier for its effective implementation. The agency did not investigate whether the process itself worked, only whether it was being implemented as it had been designed. The report did find there was no change to resident satisfaction as a result of the formal dispute process for six of the nine companies that responded to a survey sent by the GAO. (The agency sent the survey to all 14 military housing companies, but only nine responded.) Among the three companies that reported a change, two said there was moderate improvement, and one responded “not sure or not applicable.”

Elizabeth Field, director of GAO’s Defense Capabilities and Management team, said that navigating the contractual relationship between private housing companies and the military can present special challenges to oversight efforts like the formal dispute process. “[Military Housing Privatization Initiative] is a public/private partnership, which means that interests of both parties need to be balanced, and that can be tricky when you’re dealing with something as personal and central to quality of life as housing,” she told POGO. But families like the Brewers have felt that they’re left by the wayside in the balancing act between the military’s interests and the housing company’s interests. And it leaves service members like Daniel Brewer reevaluating their attitude toward the military itself. 

Brewer, who has grandfathers on both sides of his family who served in the armed forces, said he wouldn’t encourage his children to join the military. Speaking about his housing challenges, he said, “It has definitely soured something that I’ve been incredibly proud of for so long, and if I do choose to move on, it sucks and it hurts that this is going to be the lasting taste in my mouth.” 

When the family moved to their new home in North Carolina, Daniel and Michelle briefly considered whether they’d be willing to live in military family housing again, but their eight-year-old daughter asked them not to. “I don’t want to live on base anymore because my stomach hurts when we live on base,” Daniel recalled her saying. 

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