The Defense Department has made progress reasserting its authority over the private companies that manage military housing, according to Pentagon officials and members of Congress during a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing Thursday.
But it must ensure that commanders and housing offices remain vigilant to provide safe, quality housing for military families, they added.
To address a scandal that erupted last year following media reports of unsanitary and dangerous conditions in privately managed military homes, military leaders have instituted reforms to fix the problems and hold the companies accountable.
Since February, Army, Navy and Air Force leaders have inspected thousands of on-base homes; crafted a tenant bill of rights that would, among other things, allow service members to withhold rent from companies if maintenance needs are not met; and plan to hire customer service representatives to advocate for residents.
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Robert McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, told members of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee that the DoD has short- and long-term plans to ensure that current and future residents live in high-quality homes. He acknowledged that the DoD had shirked its responsibilities.
"The reality is that this is an issue we should not have dropped off," McMahon said.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-California, subcommittee chairman, said he has heard from families who continue to face problems, including some whose work orders have been closed too quickly or who have not gotten recourse because they signed non-disclosure agreements.
"The services must expeditiously move from assessment mode to implementation" of reforms, he said.
Safety and health issues in privately managed military housing were exposed last year in several months-long investigations by Reuters. They included reports of pest infestations, children poisoned by lead in older homes and families falling ill as the result of mold growth in new construction.
In the past, the private housing companies and military leaders reported to Congress that the housing programs resulted in tenant satisfaction rates of 85% to 98%.
Results of a survey released in February, however, painted a different picture: Of 14,558 qualified respondents, 56 percent said they had a negative or very negative experience living in privatized housing.
As a result of the scandal, members of Congress have called on the Defense Department to investigate the companies and renegotiate their 50-year contract deals.
McMahon said the military services are adding staff and increasing training and will roll out a final tenant bill of rights soon, although he didn't provide a timeline.
Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, noted that the services must be aggressive in conducting oversight of the companies. He asked about an employee of Hunt Military Housing, the company that manages Air Force Academy housing, who was recently arrested for financial fraud.
John Henderson, assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy, said a routine audit of the company's records in 2017 "revealed anomalies" that, after an investigation, led to the arrest of the employee.
"It's a very unfortunate situation," Henderson said. "But I think it also it serves as a good example of what routine oversight looks like, and what it looks like when it's working correctly."
Hunt Military Housing has agreed to pay back a $169,000 discrepancy.
Lawmakers said they plan to allow the DoD to hire additional staff to work on the issue and promised to continue monitoring the situation.
"Heads up, folks. We are going to be back to this issue before the year is over," Garamendi said.