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Trouble on the Home Front

Thanks to rigged oversight measures, unsafe housing conditions persist for military families.

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Trouble on the home front

Many service members and their families are having to endure deplorable conditions in on-base military family housing units: things like black mold, asbestos, lead paint, sewage leakages, and rodent infestations. There’s evidence that poor housing conditions have made inhabitants sick, given them potentially lifelong respiratory issues, and destroyed their belongings. This is a well-known crisis — even more so after a scathing Senate investigation spotlighted the widespread nature of these issues last year.

In 2021, Congress set up a formal dispute process to help military families combat the hazardous conditions they were made to live in. But what should have been an avenue for accountability turned out to be a dead end, leaving families feeling silenced and stuck in unsafe housing with no feasible way to get help.

In this edition:

  • How military family housing works
  • An oversight measure that should have been a win
  • A crisis that can’t go unaddressed

The formal dispute process has tended to overwhelmingly favor the interests of private housing companies over those of service members and their families, according to military housing advocates who have helped thousands of service members around the country. They say the process is so rigged in the housing companies’ favor that most families avoid the dispute process altogether, and those that do go through the process have little success. My colleague, POGO Investigator René Kladzyk, recently authored an investigation on the issue. I met with her to understand the battle military families are facing.

But first, some context 

René made the crucial point that most people — myself included — are likely unfamiliar with the nuances of the military housing system, which is quite different from civilian housing. Service members are often assigned a base on which to live and are reassigned bases every few years. Military families thus tend to move around a lot. Most families have the option of living off-base, but on-base housing is typically more affordable and less of a hassle than navigating the housing market. A caveat with on-base housing is that rent is automatically deducted from a service member’s basic allowance. As of 2019, around 700,000 people live in military family housing.

Another important piece of context: 99% of on-base military family housing is owned, run, and maintained by private housing companies. The privatization of military housing is a semi-recent event, beginning in 1996 with the Military Housing Privatization Initiative. Before that, housing was run solely by the Department of Defense (DOD) itself. “DOD-run housing has long been notorious for its poor conditions,” René explained. “The hope was to outsource housing to private companies so that they could improve conditions for families.”

But military family housing conditions did not improve under the management of private companies. In 2019, a damning Reuters investigation brought national attention to how one of the largest of these companies was falsifying maintenance records and defrauding the Pentagon of millions of dollars in good-landlord incentive fees.

“The housing companies landed extremely lucrative, 50-year contracts with a captive tenant population where they were guaranteed steady rent no matter what,” René explained. “That is financial incentive for them to not maintain these houses.”

A problem dressed in solution’s clothing 

The Reuters investigation and public outcry motivated Congress to increase oversight of military family housing. They created a Tenant Bill of Rights that gave families access to a for pursuing their housing issues if they were unable to get the help they needed by going directly to the housing companies. While in the formal dispute process, families were supposed to be able to withhold rent, which they otherwise cannot do.

The formal dispute process was supposed to be a win for these families, but in practice it is practically ineffective.

Because the government can’t change the terms of the existing contracts with these housing companies, compliance with the Tenant Bill of Rights is voluntary. And because of a provision in the military family housing universal lease, complete confidentiality — both about the process and any decisions made — is legally required for families in the formal dispute process. Many have criticized this as enabling the companies to hide wrongdoing and silence the residents. Additionally, the military typically acts as the decisionmaker in the formal dispute process, even though they are not an independent third party given their business partnership with the housing companies.

These flaws in the dispute process weren’t introduced by mistake. They were baked in from the start.

“Housing companies had the opportunity to weigh in on what the oversight provisions would be since they were already in contract with the government. Congress and the DOD needed these companies to buy in, and therefore the companies had a very direct hand in shaping what oversight of themselves looks like,” René explained. “Which is exactly how you end up with oversight tools that have zero teeth, like the formal dispute process.”

According to military housing advocate groups, the formal dispute process is nearly always decided in favor of the housing companies. Because the confidentiality clause risks families being silenced on their issues, many choose not to even bother using the dispute process.

Left in the lurch

 Housing is a basic need, and quality housing is something service members should be able to count on the government providing. But poor and unsafe housing conditions remain a crisis — a crisis that is further enabled and exacerbated by ineffective oversight and accountability measures for the private companies that run military family housing.

Also, substandard military housing could even be a deterrent for military recruitment and retention. A service member René interviewed for her investigation told her that his experience with military family housing affected him so much that he would not be encouraging his children to join the military.

Military service already demands a great deal of sacrifice from service members and their families. But sacrificing access to safe housing should not be a factor. The government has an ethical obligation to do better for military families, starting with effectively overseeing these private housing companies and holding them accountable.

Read René’s investigation into the issues plaguing military family housing — and the lack of effective tools to address them.

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