WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is failing to ensure that all military families have access to safe, quality housing, according to a new government watchdog report.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) oversees private-sector developers who build, renovate, manage and maintain military housing.
But it doesn’t collect data about military housing conditions reliably or consistently and includes unreliable and misleading data in reports to Congress, according to the report , which was conducted by the General Accountability Office (GAO).
In addition, the data DOD uses to assess the work done by private housing partners may not provide meaningful information about military housing conditions, and some of the department’s efforts to monitor housing conditions are limited, the report found.
“We know the department’s efforts are headed in the right direction, but it will take sustained attention, likely over a number of years to work through the many complications of this long-term public-private partnership and to fully meet the department’s goal of providing safe and clean housing for all service members and their families,” Elizabeth Field, director of defense capabilities and management at the Government Accountability Office, said Tuesday at a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the matter.
To complete the report, the GAO reviewed policies, visited military installations, held focus groups and interviewed DOD and private partner officials to complete its report about Pentagon oversight. It was released Tuesday.
In her testimony, Field disputed the department’s response that tenant satisfaction and occupancy rates are high. She said those figures aren’t reliable and that military families often choose to live in privatized housing for reasons that don’t have to do with housing quality.
A spokesman for the department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Congress privatized housing more than two decades ago to address concerns over substandard housing on military bases. Enacted in 1996, the Military Housing Privatization Initiative was envisioned as a way to improve the quality of DOD-owned housing and to quickly address military housing shortages.
Today, nearly all housing on military bases is built, renovated, managed and maintained by private-sector developers, who are overseen by the Pentagon and managed by the branches of the military. But concerns about quality persist, and reports in recent years have identified the presence of lead-based paint, mold, pest infestations, toxic gas leaks, sewage problems and other hazards.
“When is enough enough?” asked Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) a member of the Armed Services Committee.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, echoed the sentiment.
In addition to faulty data collection by the DOD, he said the military chain of command has “abdicated responsibility” for the problem and accused private housing companies of treating military families like “captive” clients whom they can take for granted. “I find that outrageous,” he said.
Tillis has made the issue a focus of his work as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee and has discussed the issue during visits to military bases in the state.
Military families at Camp Lejeune have reported problems such as delayed repair work, unrepaired hurricane damage, unsafe trees and poor communication between maintenance workers and families, and lack of access to information and data, according to Tillis’ office.
An intelligence officer who served at Camp Lejeune with the U.S. Marine Corps said he was planning to exit the service in large part because of the stress that poor housing quality was causing his family, GAO’s Field told Policy Watch in a short interview.
At Fort Bragg, GAO heard from a military spouse who wasn’t able to get a pest infestation addressed for eight months and learned a military housing office was following up on only 5% of work orders per month, she said.
Many problems observed by the GAO in North Carolina were similar to problems found at installations in other states, Field said. “A lot of this is not necessarily specific to North Carolina.”
Kaine, for his part, reported “really bad issues” at Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia, such as a contractor who lied about replacing insulation to remove mold when he didn’t in fact do so.
And Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the committee, called the problem a “national crisis” and compared it to the 2007 scandal at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., which was charged with providing substandard health care.
Tuesday’s hearing was the committee’s third on military housing this year.
“Progress has not been what we wanted,” Inhofe said, citing ongoing reports of questionable practices, poor workmanship and fraud. “We’re still failing to fix the problem.”
Tillis said he hopes to address the issue in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes funding for the Pentagon.
The Senate-passed version of the bill would establish a dispute resolution process, increase oversight and create a Tenant Bill of Rights. It would also create new quality control measures, increase health and hazard inspections and authorize more than $300 million to ensure installations have the necessary government housing personnel to implement thorough oversight and planning measures.
But the bill has yet to become law — an issue that Sen. David Perdue, a Georgia Republican, took issue with during the hearing. Military housing problems cannot be fixed as long as lawmakers are playing “political games” on Capitol Hill.
Tillis also wants to ban nondisclosure agreements between tenants and housing providers, an issue he raised at a hearing in March. The agreements bar tenants from disclosing information about agreements or speaking negatively about housing providers.
And he wants to make “an example” out of private contractors who are providing military families with shoddy housing by taking them to court.
“When do we…say, ‘You know, it’s time to recognize you’re in breach of contract … go to a court of law and settle this,” he said.
Allison Stevens is a reporter for the States Newsroom Network  of which NC Policy Watch is a member.