Military Families in On-Base Housing May Soon Be Able to Withhold Rent in Disputes

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File photo of housing at the U.S. Army base at Fort Benning, Georgia. (Army Photo)
File photo of housing at the U.S. Army base at Fort Benning, Georgia. (Army Photo)

Several long-awaited additions to the Defense Department's tenant bill of rights for military families living on base will be instituted this summer, giving personnel more power to resolve disputes with the private companies that manage military housing developments.

Paul Cramer, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for sustainment (installations), told a House funding committee Tuesday that three elements will be added to rental lease agreements "at the vast majority of installations ... by June 1."

The Pentagon is working with the companies to consider applying the provisions retroactively to "existing projects," Cramer added.

The provisions include mediated dispute resolution between landlords and tenants, rent withholding under some circumstances when conflicts arise, and access to a housing unit's maintenance history.

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Not all military families will see the changes, however. At least three of the 14 private contractors that manage 79 military family housing projects across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps have not yet agreed to adding the provisions, according to Cramer.

He did not disclose the names of the companies. "I think we'll eventually get them all on board," he said.

The provisions were included in a tenant bill of rights drafted for military families last year and instituted in May. But the three, plus one that required standardized documents for rental agreements and other paperwork, were postponed as the DoD negotiated terms with the housing companies, which hold 50-year contracts to manage military housing.

Now, the resident-specific provisions will appear in leases.

"The project owners will embed those in existing documents that are then signed by the landlord and the tenant and overseen by the military departments," Cramer said during a hearing on privatized housing before the House Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.

Systemic problems in military housing came to light in 2018 following a series of reports by Reuters on the presence of mold, lead-based paint, dangerous wiring and extensive damage in military homes managed by private companies.

After a series of hearings during which military spouses testified about their poor housing conditions, including rodent infestations and extensive mold, as well as their landlord's non-responsiveness, the service secretaries worked together to develop a tenant bill of rights, including allowing a service member to withhold rent -- usually their Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH -- while a dispute was being settled.

This key provision should be implemented for most during the upcoming permanent change of station moving season, Cramer said.

"We anticipate all but a handful will agree to implement the ''dispute/rent-withhold'' clauses by summer," Cramer added.

The DoD already is seeing some successes with initiatives launched in response to the military housing crisis, he said.

A ratings system tool that allows families to assess housing maintenance or repair work on a scale of one-to-five -- one that is not filtered through the landlord and is visible to garrison commanders -- has proven useful and popular, Cramer said.

The DoD also has established a formal dispute resolution process that includes rent withholding with full implementation expected by the summer, he said.

The department is developing a consumer database website that would give residents more information on their prospective houses, including maintenance and complaint history to allow them to make "informed decisions."

In the wake of the housing scandal last year, the Government Accountability Office made 12 recommendations to the DoD to improve contractor oversight, maintenance data, resident satisfaction reporting and performance metrics.

GAO analyst Elizabeth Field said the DoD has made strong progress on implementing the recommendations but added that the department should pay closer attention to its oversight of contractors regarding their insurance coverage and improve its processes for setting BAH rates.

According to the GAO, the DoD has not collected sufficient data from the minimum number of rental units needed to estimate the total housing cost for an area -- an oversight that doesn't accurately represent the cost of suitable housing.

Field said the current method for calculating often hurts personnel living in low-cost areas.

"Congress needs to pass legislation that changes how the payments back to the companies to offset the effects of [BAH] reductions are calculated so the two calculations are consistent," Field said. "If we don't have that happen, then we're going to continue to have some privatized housing projects, especially those lower-cost areas, that are disproportionately hurt by those reductions in the Basic Allowance for Housing."

Subcommittee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said she continues to have concerns about the health of military families living in substandard housing.

"We're going to hear from families as a follow-up because that was a chief complaint that -- even when the company said that they took care of [problems] -- the next family still had an issue with potentially very hazardous, infectious problems," Wasserman Schultz said.

Cramer said that an Army registry established 18 months ago includes roughly 500 families, and the DoD is collecting more information for a report to Congress on health conditions, a requirement of the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill.

He added, however, that there are challenges linking a house to health problems within families.

"Once you get to the point where a family does become sick or have an allergic reaction to the mold, they're displaced," Cramer said. "Probably 18 months ago, the displacements [spiked] and those are coming back down so consistently, we've not been able to see any linkage that comes back, that we can we can honestly say a house is causing, you know, a number of disturbances within a family.

"We're still collecting data, which is what all these other initiatives are designed to do to see if we can come up with some systemic cause and effect," he said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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