Army Eyes Privatized Barracks as It Struggles to Find a Solution to Poor Living Conditions for Soldiers

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Construction work on barracks at Fort McCoy
Construction work on a transient training troops barracks project at Fort McCoy, Wis., July 13, 2022. (U.S. Army Photo by Scott T. Sturkol)

The Army is hoping privatization can fix the myriad quality-of-life issues facing its barracks, at least partly because it has few other ideas.

In December, key service leaders had a barracks summit to draw up plans to get soldier housing back up to standards following months of media reports on rampant mold and other problems, as well as a damning federal watchdog report detailing squalid conditions in military rank-and-file base housing.

They came out of that summit relatively empty-handed with no clear path forward and still facing an estimated $7.5 billion price tag for simply catching up on maintenance for the service's portfolio of 6,700 barracks buildings. A Military.com investigation into the effort included interviews with more than a dozen key Army personnel.

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Enter privatization, a move the military used in an attempt to fix systemic problems with base family housing that surfaced in the 1990s.

Army planners have been slowly working on plans to privatize barracks, something already done by the Navy in a limited capacity.

A pilot project is in the works at Fort Irwin in California, with additional installations being eyed. For now, the Army has limited privatized barracks that are mostly for older enlisted personnel and not at the scale or as logistically challenging as privatizing barracks en masse for entire formations.

"There is no set timeline for the pilot project, and housing providers will need to compete for any potential privatization contracts," Matt Ahearn, a service spokesperson, told Military.com in a statement. "Privatization of barracks might not be feasible at all installations, but in some areas, it could enable the Army to acquire new, top-quality barracks quickly."

Ahearn added that the Tenant Bill of Rights, a basic outline of quality-of-life standards used for privatized military family housing, will transfer to barracks.

"The Tenant Bill of Rights, designed primarily for family housing, sets a standard of care that the Army expects private housing providers to uphold for all types of housing, including unaccompanied housing," Ahearn said in the statement.

Privatization is something the Army has been flirting with for nearly 30 years.

In 1996, Congress passed the Military Housing Privatization Initiative, granting the services authority to privatize housing for "unaccompanied personnel," which generally refers to junior enlisted troops.

That initiative allows the Defense Department to provide direct loans and various financial incentives to private-sector developers. The services mostly walked away from the idea. The Army, instead, doubled down on traditional barracks and spent more than $12 billion on barracks construction and renovations between the bill being passed and 2012.

This also is not the first time the service has eyed Fort Irwin for privatization. In 2009, it looked at that installation, alongside Fort Johnson (formerly Fort Polk), Louisiana, Fort Drum, New York, Fort Liberty, North Carolina and Fort Meade, Maryland -- some of which ended up having small-scale privatized barracks. But when it came to privatizing large-scale, traditional barracks for entire units, the Army concluded that the cost to privatize was greater than what it was currently spending on construction and maintenance. 

Part of the attraction of privatizing barracks, one Army official explained, is that the service has simply fallen too deep into a financial hole with its maintenance backlog, and there's no path forward to get those needed billions of dollars from Congress while also crafting sound policy to maintain its barracks portfolio.

Still, privatization is seen by some Army planners as extremely controversial, considering the service's poor track record with privatized family housing. Others have voiced support behind the scenes, saying that the Army simply cannot take care of its barracks inventory.

"Barracks is basically a rock, and we're Sisyphus," one Army official said, referring to the Greek mythological figure who was doomed to push an immense rock uphill for eternity.

Concerns among some officials revolve around companies that manage private military family housing being in and out of court and constantly facing scrutiny from Congress. They also worry barracks privatization could make some bad actors in the private sector wealthier with lengthy and lucrative defense contracts.

The issues with privatized family housing came to a crescendo in 2021 when the company Balfour Beatty pleaded guilty to fraud tied to conditions in military housing from 2013 to 2019. As part of the plea, the company agreed to pay $65 million in fines and restitution.

A congressional investigation in 2022 found the company's practices were still putting military families' health and safety at risk, with reports of filth, mold and asbestos.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told Military.com that if the Army moves forward with privatizing barracks, the service may try to limit its business with companies it sees as bad actors.

"There are a number of potential challenges," Wormuth said in an October interview with Military.com. "We work with five different companies on privatized housing on the family side. … I'm not going to name names, but some of those companies do a very good job; some other companies we've had problems with.

"If we did pursue privatized barracks on a broader scale, I don't think we'd necessarily be working with bad partners," she said at the time.

Wormuth has touted quality-of-life issues as a key priority, with barracks being the nucleus of those issues.

But as Army officials weigh a future of holding private companies to account, service planners are struggling to craft meaningful efforts for barracks maintenance now. So far, the Army has little in terms of policy or other efforts to boost barracks quality -- or track how poor living conditions impact health and retention.

The Army declined to respond to questions from Military.com on whether it's planning to make it easier for soldiers to report mold infestations or other infrastructure concerns, as commanders have frequently suggested they have difficulty understanding the scope of issues their formations have with living standards. The service also declined to comment on any planned improvements to maintenance and oversight programs.

Finally, the service also declined to respond to a request for comment on whether it tracks health issues soldiers sustain from prolonged exposure to mold or other hazards in barracks.

Military.com reported last year on 11 soldiers who say they developed illnesses from exposure to moldy conditions, such as respiratory issues, with some being admitted to emergency care.

Related: The Army Needs a Lot of Money for Barracks, But It's Fighting for Pocket Change

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