The U.S. military's service chiefs and secretaries heard testimony Tuesday yesterday that their own surveys showing high satisfaction and occupancy rates in military housing were bogus, and glossed over negligence and poor performance by private-sector companies and property managers.
The survey finding that 87% of tenants were satisfied with their privatized housing was misleading in the way it was worded and should not be taken as an "indicator of program success," according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.
"This 87% figure is not in any way reliable," Elizabeth Field, the GAO's director of defense capabilities and management, said at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the crisis in military housing.
Rather than simply asking whether tenants would recommend privatized housing on base to others, the military's survey asked whether they would "recommend this community to others."
"A resident's satisfaction with his or her community and inclination to recommend it to others may not be reflective of satisfaction with either the privatized housing unit or privatized housing in general," the GAO report said.
The report also said that pointing to high occupancy rates as an indicator of resident satisfaction was meaningless.
"Through our site visits to 10 installations, where we conducted 15 focus groups with families, we learned that family members often choose to live in privatized housing for reasons that have nothing to do with the housing itself," Field said.
She cited "reasons such as living in close proximity to medical and education services for children with special needs, or a concern that off-base housing is neither affordable nor safe."
The GAO report also noted discrepancies in work order data provided by the private companies that did not reflect actual performance.
The report identified instances of "duplicate work orders, work orders with completion dates prior to the dates that a resident had submitted the work order, and work orders still listed as in-progress for more than 18 months."
The hearing was held a day after another lawsuit was filed by military families, alleging failures by private managers to address mold and other conditions that led to health problems.
The suit, filed by five families at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida against AMC East Communities and Clark Realty Capital, was at least the fourth of its kind filed this year, according to Shannon Razsadin, executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, who attended the hearing.
At the hearing, GAO's Field sat at the end of a long table to the right of Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the committee's chairman, set the tone for the rare joint appearance of service leadership by asking when they were going to get ahead of a crisis in military housing that has been building for years.
"I have to ask, when is enough enough? You are still failing to fix the problems. It is a nationwide scandal," Inhofe said.
Inhofe said his remarks were not intended as a blanket indictment of the military for failing to heed the families' complaints, but added that the lack of oversight was giving a pass to "the bad actors we know are out there."
Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, urged the military to consider referring property managers for criminal prosecution in instances of fraud or retaliation against military families for filing complaints.
In their testimony, the chiefs and secretaries acknowledged past failures, but said they were taking corrective action.
They also pressed the senators to get moving on passing a National Defense Authorization Act including a tenant bill of rights for the military.
The NDAA and the defense budget for fiscal 2020 have been held up on a number of issues, including funding for the border wall, and the government is now operating on a continuing resolution set to expire Dec. 21 that has kept spending at 2019 levels.
In his testimony, and in a later meeting with reporters, McCarthy said the Army was taking a "house-to-house" approach to addressing the housing crisis.
"The immediate focus is to fix current housing issues that can be addressed by effective follow through on work orders and improved management," he said. "We owe it to the 45% of our force who live on post."
McCarthy also noted that more than 2,000 Army families this year have been displaced to hotels or other accommodations by poor upkeep of their homes or natural disasters.
"Since February, the Army tracked the displacement of 2,155 five families. Currently, 198 families are still in temporary housing while privatized companies are addressing issues in their homes," he said. "These aren't simply numbers, these are lives."
The Navy's Modly said "we are not completely satisfied" with how the service has handled housing issues, "and we will not rest" until the families' problems are addressed.
Air Force Secretary Barrett said faulty construction and poor maintenance were mainly the result of "project owners who have simply failed" in their responsibilities.
However, "the Air Force owns part of the responsibility as well," Barrett said, noting that the housing problems "have distracted from the Air Force mission. This is unacceptable."
One of the issues at the forefront for military families struggling to have their homes repaired has been the non-disclosure agreements some companies have required them to sign for work orders.
Under the terms of these agreements, "you can't speak even about the existence of the agreement, and you can't speak disparagingly" about the property manager or the work order might not be fulfilled, Tillis said.
Those were reasons "why these damn things have to be eliminated," Tillis said, to applause from the military families in attendance at the hearing.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.