Barracks would legally have to be considered habitable under one version of an annual defense policy bill advanced last week by the Senate Armed Services Committee, a move that could set a new higher standard of quality for the housing.
The on-base military housing is now exempt from the legal requirements of basic habitability imposed on privatized military housing, which is run by for-profit companies. Barracks owned by the military have recently been plagued by mold that has turned the living quarters into health hazards.
The requirement is one of several provisions included in the Senate committee's National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, aimed at improving the quality of the on-base housing. The legislation would also give the military services more flexibility to replace substandard barracks quickly.
One section of the bill would mandate that "enlisted housing meets the same basic standards as all other military housing, both privatized and government-owned," according to a summary released Friday.
Privatized military housing has had its own livability issues in recent years. But legally, that housing and government-owned military family housing have to meet basic habitability standards.
Barracks have so far been exempt from those standards, but this year's NDAA would remove the exemption, committee staffers told reporters.
The push to improve barracks quality comes after the Army, in particular, has struggled to handle housing that has been blanketed by mold.
Military.com has previously reported on mold infestations at Fort Liberty, previously called Bragg, in North Carolina and Fort Stewart, Georgia, and service members living at those bases have detailed health concerns, including asthma and nosebleeds. Earlier this year, an Army audit of all its buildings, including barracks and offices, found 2,100 facilities had mold issues.
The House Armed Services Committee's version of the NDAA, also advanced last week, would similarly require the Pentagon to set minimum health and safety standards for barracks, and prevent those standards from being waived unless a service secretary signs off on doing so, according to the bill text.
In addition to requiring barracks to meet a basic living standard, the Senate's NDAA would authorize the replacement of substandard enlisted barracks using different funding sources over five years, according to the committee. The authority would be separate from the typical military construction process, which can be slow and arduous, to allow service secretaries to respond more quickly to poor living conditions, committee staffers said.
The bill would also require the Pentagon to set up a department-wide work order system for enlisted barracks and mandate civilian oversight of barracks through installations' housing offices, according to the bill summary.
Military families living in privatized housing also continue to be afflicted by mold, asbestos and other dangerous living conditions, and the version of the NDAA advanced by the House Armed Services Committee contains measures aimed at helping them.
Most prominently, the House NDAA would create a Military Housing Readiness Council of representatives from the Pentagon, each of the military services, military spouses, military housing advocacy groups, appointees of members of Congress and outside experts in state and federal housing standards.
The council would, among other duties, monitor compliance with the congressionally mandated tenant bill of rights and complaint database.
"We've seen mold, windows that won't close, leaky roofs, loose electrical wiring," Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., who championed including the council in the NDAA, told Military.com in an interview. "Having this council to monitor it will be an important oversight, especially because we know with the long leases [that housing companies have with the Pentagon], there hasn't really been a sort of central entity that is doing the kind of oversight that we need."
A similar proposal was included in last year's Senate version of the NDAA, but was taken out of the bill that became law after negotiations with the House. But Jacobs said she is hopeful the council will become law this year, arguing that "the more people have been engaging with military families, the clearer it is that we need to do more on the quality of housing."
The House NDAA would also make it easier for junior enlisted service members to live off-base by giving commanders the authority to let them move off-base with a housing allowance if the on-base housing is "inadequate or an impediment to morale, good order or discipline."
That provision was inspired by the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, which saw a suicide cluster last year as sailors lived aboard the ship while it was undergoing major maintenance in port. Earlier this year, there were also three aircraft carriers in port in San Diego, which caused a scramble to find housing to avoid a repeat of the George Washington, Jacobs said.
"It became clear that this was a flexibility that would have been really useful," Jacobs said. "Luckily, we were able to get a hospitality barge and a few other things, and we were able to make sure that service members in this case got what they needed. But I think this flexibility will be really important for base commanders and commanding officers moving forward."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.