Air Force Secretary Proposes Tenant Bill of Rights for Military Families

Personnel stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, walk on a dirt path around Carnes Road on Feb. 6, 2019. The path was opened to enable foot traffic around the Santa Margarita I and Wire Mountain II housing areas in order to avoid a sinkhole that developed in the road due to erosion. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Juan Bustos)
Personnel stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, walk on a dirt path around Carnes Road on Feb. 6, 2019. The path was opened to enable foot traffic around the Santa Margarita I and Wire Mountain II housing areas in order to avoid a sinkhole that developed in the road due to erosion. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Juan Bustos)

The military services plan to work with Congress to give troops more say in rental agreements with private companies that manage on-base housing, potentially allowing them to withhold rent or break leases if their homes are in poor or unsanitary condition.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said their service, along with the Army and Navy, supports a tenant bill of rights that would provide troops with protection as well as more power in handling housing problems, according to a Reuters interview that was confirmed by Air Force officials on Tuesday.

Wilson and Goldfein said families often are powerless to challenge private industry landlords who automatically receive rental payments from military personnel and who routinely ignore maintenance requests and complaints. "Clearly, there are areas where we have issues," Goldfein told Reuters.

The move comes a week after the non-profit Military Family Advisory Network released a survey of 14,500 service members and families living in base housing that found more than half had bad experiences living in base housing and some reported dangerous conditions such as faulty wiring, lead paint, mold, poor water quality and pestilence.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday questioned executives from five of the private companies that manage the Defense Department's housing stock, promising reform while also sharply criticizing management practices and the DoD for failing to oversee the contracts properly.

"These contracts are bad enough as they are -- guaranteed profit, virtually guaranteed in return for which they are supposed to provide decent housing. ... And to give away 95 percent of the performance-based money at the same time we are hearing from the people who live in this housing that it's rat-infested, that it's dirty, that things leak -- that's just not right," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts.

"There's been many failures here, and I hope all of you can look these service members and their families in the eyes and tell them that you're sorry, but then do the right thing starting now," said Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona. "I hope you feel embarrassed."

Air Force officials said Tuesday that Wilson and Goldfein have directed a "100 percent eyes-on" inspection by commanders of the service's 50,000 privatized homes. The service inspector general also will assess how residents' problems are being handled by Air Force housing officials.

"To ensure we fully understand the problem, we want and need the feedback of our airmen. We need to better understand this problem so that we can take informed, responsible actions," Air Force Chief of Media Operations Ann Stefanek said.

The Army also has ordered its inspector general to conduct an assessment of the problems and directed senior commanders to complete an inspection of installation housing by mid-March, according to a letter sent Feb. 15 by senior leaders Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Army Secretary Mark Esper and Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey.

Army leaders also will hold town halls by March 1 for residents to discuss their concerns.  

"Where life, health and safety issues exist, senior commanders will ensure that conditions are immediately remediated. Housing residents will be relocated to temporary quarters as requested or required by senior commanders," the leaders wrote.

They added that families will only be returned to their housing once commanders declare the issues to be resolved.

Wilson said the Air Force also is considering working to renegotiate its contracts with the housing companies.

In 2018, Reuters launched two massive investigations into unhealthy conditions in military housing: an extensive review of lead contamination at Army housing at various installations and reports of dangerous levels of mold in housing across several Air Force bases.

The Navy in 2011 had issues with mold in privatized housing in Norfolk, Virginia. On Thursday, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment Phyllis Bayer told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the service instituted improved management practices that include forwarding problems with environmental hazards immediately up the chain of command -- changes that have largely allowed it to avoid the most recent scandal.

Still, Bayer apologized to families for the issues.

"We're responsible, and we're going to fix it ... [we] are fully dedicated and committed to ensuring that all Marines and sailors and their families live in safe, secure housing that meet or exceed health and safety standards," she said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at patricia.kime@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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