Bipartisan senators say Pentagon's effort to improve military housing falls short

Bipartisan senators say Pentagon's effort to improve military housing falls short
© Greg Nash

The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee are criticizing the Pentagon's efforts to address widespread issues in military housing, arguing it “does not go far enough” to protect military families.

Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeBipartisan Senate panel leaders back fund to deter China The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Major space launch today; Trump feuds with Twitter Justice Department closing stock investigations into Loeffler, Inhofe, Feinstein MORE (R-Okla.) and ranking member Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedBipartisan Senate panel leaders back fund to deter China The Hill's Coronavirus Report: National Portrait Gallery's Kim Sajet says this era rewiring people's relationship with culture, art; Trump's war with Twitter heats up Overnight Defense: Trump to withdraw US from Open Skies Treaty | Pentagon drops ban on recruits who had virus | FBI says Corpus Christi shooting terror-related MORE (D-R.I.) on Wednesday took issue with the Defense Department’s new Military Housing Privatization Initiative Tenant Bill of Rights, signed a day earlier by Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Trump extends deployment of National Guard troops to aid with coronavirus response | Pentagon considers reducing quarantine to 10 days | Lawmakers push for removal of Nazi headstones from VA cemeteries No time to be selling arms to the Philippines Pentagon considers cutting coronavirus quarantines to 10 days MORE and the service secretaries.

“We are glad to see the Department of Defense is taking steps in the right direction to ensure our military families have basic tenant rights and fair treatment by housing companies. Unfortunately, it feels like we are seeing a pattern of moving two steps forward, one step back when it comes to fixing our broken military housing system,” Inhofe and Reed said in a joint statement Wednesday. “The Department’s proposed Bill of Rights does not go far enough to protect our military families.”

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The document is meant to ensure service members and their families have access to safe and well-maintained houses at military installations, but it left out key provisions required by Congress, including allowing tenants to withhold rent and move at no cost if repairs aren’t made.

Inhofe and Reed said the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act stipulated the tenant bill of rights should include a process for dispute resolution, the ability to withhold rent if a problem isn't addressed, and access to a home’s maintenance history, none of which were included in Tuesday's document.

They also argued that the Pentagon led military families to believe such protections were in the bill of rights when leadership circulated a draft for comment last year.

“Considering we made our position clear at the numerous hearings we held last year and in our initial version of the Defense Authorization bill back in May 2019 - and they were enacted into law on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis - we are extremely disappointed to see these glaring holes,” the two lawmakers state.

“We prioritized meaningful reforms like these in our bill because they give military families due recourse and force the Department and housing companies to be accountable to the families they serve. The Department’s release is yet another missed opportunity.”

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They add that they may “take additional steps in the FY21 defense authorization bill,” to ensure such protections are included.

The Pentagon said the bill of rights did not include some of those protections due to “legal matters that do not lend themselves to unilateral action by the Department," adding that "more work is required before the benefits of these rights are fully available to tenants.”

About 99 percent of on-base housing was privatized following the 1996 Military Housing Privatization Initiative, which involved private contractors paying reconstruction costs in exchange for 50-year leases from the military services.

The initiative was meant to address numerous housing problems, but a 2018 Reuters investigation revealed housing with black mold, rodent infestations and collapsing ceilings.

The investigation and subsequent series of congressional hearings sparked bipartisan outrage, and the five main companies overseeing 200,000 homes on bases across the country have been criticized and even sued over their practices.