The Army's top brass say they're committed to fixing major problems in privatized military family housing and barracks facilities, but can only do so much without another infusion of cash.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told an audience at the Association of the United States Army's annual meeting this week that the firms that own and manage private family housing have committed $500 million to address immediate needs, but have to come up with more.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph McConville added that the Army has spent almost $1 billion to repair barracks so far.
"We're going to increase that," he said.
Leaders of all services have acknowledged a crisis in military housing following a series of investigative reports earlier this year that revealed military family residences infested with mold, vermin and other problems. Some families said these issues had led to life-altering health conditions.
"We want to not have [millions]; we want to get some [billions] on those numbers to fix the housing," McConville said.
McConville and McCarthy also said that the Army has prepared a draft "tenant bill of rights" to give families more clout with the private real estate firms, but needs approval from Congress to finalize it.
They couldn't say when that might happen, as Congress struggles once again under a continuing resolution. The main impasse in current budget disputes is over Democrats' opposition to funding for the border wall.
McCarthy said the Army had worked with the other services to come up with common language on the tenant rights document.
"We believe we're lined up well with the committees of jurisdiction ... but we need it voted out," McCarthy said.
At a Pentagon briefing Friday, Ellen Lord, the under secretary of defense for acquisitions, said there were still some hurdles to get past with Congress on both the tenant bill of rights and a "residents' responsibilities document."
Without being specific, she said the Senate had added some provisions but "we will ensure our documents are aligned with Congressional guidance."
Lord said the goal was to "improve the trust and accountability of our leadership to provide safe, healthy homes for our families renting privatized housing."
The Army's commitment to addressing the crisis in military housing was welcome, but the responsibility to provide safe homes required immediate attention, said Shannon Razsadin, executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network.
"We're encouraged at the direction they're going," she said. "We're still hearing from families struggling with their homes" without any timeline for repairs.
The examples of a dysfunctional system are many, Razsadin said, citing the current case of a family based at Fort Belvoir, Virginia that had been forced to stay at a hotel for more than 50 days while waiting for repairs.
"They're feeling the financial stress," Razsadin said of families living in substandard conditions. "They want to know how they can live in a home that's safe" from what the Army calls "environmental issues," such as lead paint, mold and poor water quality.
In a briefing for reporters last week ahead of the AUSA convention, Army officials acknowledged shortcomings in oversight, but pointed to the sheer scope of the system they're attempting to reform: 11,000 government-owned homes, 87,000 privatized homes, 55 privatized lodging hotels and 6,500 barracks facilities.
All told, if the entire inventory were to be replaced, it would cost about $94 billion, one of the officials said.
One Army's new strategies is to assign a senior noncommissioned officer to each barracks facility to collect feedback from the troops and conduct periodic inspections, the officials said.
Both McConville and McCarthy avoided excuses for past failures in oversight on military housing and pledged corrective action.
"We have had some challenges with housing -- I'll be straight up -- and we're going to fix it," McConville said at the forum with military families, and he asked for their help in continuing to hold the Army accountable.
"We'd like things solved at the lowest level, but get them up to the right level where people have the authority to fix it," he said. "If you can't, get it up to us and we'll fix it."
McCarthy said the Army also would get after poorly performing private firms by withholding their award fees.
"Lots of times what happens at our level -- we may not even know we have a problem. We want to make sure they're held accountable," McCarthy said of the private housing firms. "It's the economics of a dollar ... if you want to incentivize behavior with business, tell them you're not going to pay them if you don't get what you want."
Ultimately, solving the housing crisis was a challenge for Army leadership, McConville said.
"It always comes back to leadership -- sometimes people get away from that," he said.
New Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, who joined McConville and McCarthy at the family sessions, said he was pressing junior NCOs to take more responsibility for seeing that enlisted troops get their housing problems addressed.
Young enlisted soldiers can't just be told that the resolution to their housing problem lies with an administrator in a building on base, Grinston said.
"Just because you sent them there doesn't mean the action is complete," Grinston said. "You have to be self-aware and take them to that provider that can help them."
"You're going to actually have to figure out what's going on with your folks," Grinston said of the junior NCOs. "You know your people."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.