By Sean Kimmons
Army senior leaders introduced an action plan to lawmakers Thursday that outlines steps to remedy military housing issues.
The plan includes a draft Tenant Bill of Rights, which is a joint effort by all military services expected to be finalized in the coming weeks.
In it, there are 12 rights intended to protect residents of privatized military housing.
“The recent reports of substandard conditions in some of our military housing units are deeply troubling,” said Secretary of the Army Mark Esper. “It is unacceptable for our families, who sacrifice so much for our country, to endure these hardships in their homes.”
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Esper said garrison leaders will soon be given more oversight to ensure housing companies on installations are held accountable.
Current proposals are for garrison staffs to conduct quality control checks on all life, health and safety work orders performed by contractors. They will also be present every time a resident moves in or out of a home.
To better empower them, members of garrison staffs will even be trained on contracting and housing management, he added.
A reporting system is being developed as well that will allow residents to rate the timeliness, quality of work and customer service of contractors that will be relayed to garrison teams.
“Many Army families are concerned that they lack the ability to hold the privatized housing companies accountable for poorly performed services,” Esper said, “and are inadequately protected from retaliation.”
The Army has about 104,000 houses and apartments worldwide, and of those about 89,500 have been privatized under the Residential Communities Initiative.
Seven private companies now manage the properties across 49 installations, he noted.
While the initiative helped tackle inadequate housing at the time, Esper said the Army eventually lost sufficient oversight of the program.
“In too many cases, it is clear that privatized housing companies failed to uphold their end of the bargain, a failure that was enabled by the Army’s insufficient oversight,” he said.
Within hours of the first Congressional hearing to address housing concerns last month, the Army took actions to fully understand the scope and scale of the problems, he said.
Senior leaders have since visited families in homes affected by lead paint, mold and other toxic hazards at Fort Meade, Maryland; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Campbell, Tennessee; Fort Jackson, South Carolina; Fort Belvoir, Virginia; and the U.S. Military Academy in New York.
Garrison commanders have been ordered to complete a 100 percent screening of installation housing by Monday. Town halls have also taken place across the Army.
“This has provided families a forum to voice their concerns and to report problems directly to garrison commanders,” the secretary said.
Chains of command
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley also testified that chains of command need to step up to ensure their Soldiers have adequate housing.
“Our duty as commanders is to be responsible for everything our units fail to do or succeed at,” he said.
“I want all of the Soldiers out there to know that their chain of command is now fully engaged,” he added. “It is our personal responsibility and we will be held personally accountable for the condition of their living quarters or their houses.”
Ongoing housing inspections also include barracks for single Soldiers, Esper said, adding that Soldiers and families living in off-base homes should be checked on, too.
“We have a responsibility to take care of our Soldiers [and their dependents] wherever they live,” he said.
Following meetings with senior leaders, housing companies also agreed to have a sufficient number of trained technicians and staff on installations to handle issues in a timely manner.
“All of the housing contractors are committed to working together to find ways to improve customer service and increase transparency,” he said.
Senior leaders even ordered the Army inspector general to investigate the service’s privatized housing to find the best way forward.
By 2021, plans already call for the Army to eliminate its lowest level of military housing, known as Q4. Only 190 families are currently living in Q4 housing, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel Dailey told lawmakers last month.
Providing a safe, quality living environment, the secretary said, is critical to the readiness of the force.
“This is essential to building trust, so when Soldiers deploy they can rest assured that their families are taken care of back home,” Esper said. “To do this, the Army needs to get back involved in the housing business.”