Safety hazards remain at private military housing as Trump looks to pull construction funds for wall

Safety hazards remain at private military housing as Trump looks to pull construction funds for wall
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Military leaders acknowledged Thursday that they did not have a final say in preventing the Trump administration from pulling money for military housing to build a southern border wall, even as the Defense Department reels from widespread reports of mold- and vermin-infested family housing.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) — during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on poor conditions with military housing — questioned the Army, Navy and Air Force secretaries about the Trump administration’s plan to pull $6.1 billion from Pentagon accounts to help fund the president’s promised southern border wall.

That amount includes $2.5 billion from counter-drug programs and $3.6 billion in military construction funds, which covers base housing projects. 

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“Can you assure me that none of that money will come from funds that were slated to be used to deal with base housing either here in the United States or overseas?” Kaine asked.

All three service secretaries said they would recommend to acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanDefense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall Why Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary MORE that the administration not tap military housing funds for the wall, but conceded that it’s not their final decision.

“Senator, I can assure you that that is certainly my position as well and I’ve articulated that to Secretary Shanahan. I think there’s general agreement within the department that we should not tap into either military housing or barracks ...  but I don’t have final say over that, so I can’t give 100 percent assurance,” Army Secretary Mark Esper replied.

The bipartisan anger was palpable at the hearing, where service secretaries acknowledged widespread problems with military housing conditions.

The hearing was called after a 2018 Reuters investigation found private military housing was rife with issues including black mold, vermin infestations and lead paint.

It also follows a recent survey, commissioned by the nonpartisan armed services organization Military Family Advisory Network, that found that more than 50 percent of military families found their privately managed housing dissatisfying. Currently, roughly 700,000 people live in such facilities.

Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyProgressive group to spend as much as M to turn out young voters This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Progressive veterans group launches campaign labeling Trump as a 'national security threat' MORE (R-Ariz.), an Air Force veteran, blasted the “slumlords, not landlords,” for not taking care of troops properly.

Ranking member Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedImpeachment battle looms over must-pass defense bill It's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number America's avengers deserve an advocate MORE (D-R.I.) said in his opening statement that a lack of accountability within the Pentagon allowed for privatized housing companies “to deliver lackluster customer service to military families, conduct the bare minimum for routine maintenance, and exercise zero quality control, while accruing sizable profits.”

About 99 percent of on-base housing has been privatized since 1996, when the Military Housing Privatization Initiative was created to address an array of issues with houses in disrepair on bases.

The initiative allowed private contractors to front reconstruction costs in exchange for 50-year leases from the services.

But critics say those leases allowed for the private companies to reap payments year after year with little oversight into how they maintain the dwellings.

Angered by the lack of accountability, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called for a criminal fraud investigation into the private housing companies, while Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsHillicon Valley: Facebook launches 'News Tab' | Senate passes bill to take on 'deepfakes' | Schumer outlines vision for electric cars Senate passes legislation to combat 'deepfake' videos America's newest comedy troupe: House GOP MORE (R-S.D.), said he wants to see military officials take troublesome contractors to court.

“There’s clear evidence of negligence, perhaps fraud, breach of contract with regard to the contractors and the way that they have in some cases managed their responsibilities,” Rounds said.

“Why have we not taken these contractors to court? … Is the government too cozy with these contractors to show them what they have done wrong?”

The military leaders said they are looking into such options.

Despite the numerous issues with the private companies, the service secretaries remained steadfast that the military should continue to use private companies to build and maintain housing.

“Yes, we have problems with some of our contractors, but overall I think our housing is in better shape,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said. “What we have today is better than what we had in the 1990s overall.” 

Esper, meanwhile, said privatized housing this “is still a workable model,” albeit one that needs “adjustments.”