Commentary: United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and United States Representative Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, unveiled the Military Housing Oversight and Service Member Protection Act, a comprehensive bill to address a series of disturbing reports revealing unsafe and unsanitary conditions in privatized, on-base housing for military personnel and their families. Senate cosponsors include Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).
"Our servicemembers make sacrifices to protect our country, and they and their families deserve safe, affordable housing that isn't falling apart around them," said Senator Warren. "This bill will eliminate the kind of corner-cutting and neglect the Defense Department should never have let these private housing providers get away with in the first place."
"Military families should never have to worry if their housing is safe and up to code, but I've heard reports from my district and across the country about families dealing with mold, infestation, and structural problems while private housing companies make a quick buck off taxpayer dollars. This bill will hold private housing companies to a higher standard, so that our service members don't have to worry about their families' housing while they're doing important work protecting our country," said Congresswoman Deb Haaland.
In 1996, Congress established the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI), which allowed the Department of Defense (DOD) to partner with private sector developers who would own, operate, and maintain military family housing and, in return, have access to federal direct loans, loan guarantees, and other incentives.
A series of recent investigative reports by Reuters revealed that servicemembers and their families who live in on-base housing owned by MHPI developers have been exposed to lead paint, vermin infestations, fecal and urine trails, bursting pipes, flooding, mold growth, collapsed ceilings, electric and fire hazards, and other substandard living conditions as a result of inadequate maintenance by housing companies. Senator Warren opened an investigation into this problem in February 2019, questioning housing company executives during hearings and requesting documents and information from the five largest military housing developers.
The Military Housing Oversight and Service Member Protection Act would take several steps to fix these problems by: (1) granting the Secretary of Defense clear authority to ensure that privatized military housing providers are meeting the terms of their contracts; (2) giving military family tenants greater rights to ensure their homes are safe, clean and meet all appropriate standards of habitability and providing them with tools to learn about problems with housing providers before they sign a lease; (3) ensuring that military families who developed medical conditions as a result of unsafe housing receive appropriate compensation and medical care; and (4) providing greater transparency and accountability for the 50-year housing contracts each company signs with the Department of Defense.
The legislation would:
- Increase Oversight by requiring the Secretary of Defense to establish formal written guidance for all housing contracts, and requiring the Secretary to withhold funds, and ultimately rescind the contract, if the housing provider breaches contract terms.
- Establish Tenant Protections by allowing tenants to withhold their Basic Allowance for Housing and approve all maintenance repairs performed on their residence.
- Provide Transparency by requiring the Secretary of Defense to establish a public complaint database accessible by all tenants, requiring the Secretary to include a provision in contracts with housing providers that they address all such complaints, and requiring improved transparency in the contracts that housing developers sign with DOD to provide on-base housing.
- Ensure Medical Care for Affected Military Families by directing DOD to establish a health registry for all servicemembers and families and establishing a presumption of service-connected disability for servicemembers and lifetime medical care for dependents.
- Strengthen Ethics by prohibiting all senior DOD officials from owning any investments in an entity owned or controlled by a privatized housing provider (mutual funds excluded).
The Military Housing Oversight and Service Member Protection Act is endorsed by the Military Officers Association of America, the National Military Family Association, and the Military Housing Advocacy Network.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on this issue in February 2019, Senator Warren demanded information on profits and incentive payments from private companies providing substandard housing to military families and questioned DOD officials about the lack of oversight of privatized military housing.
After hearing about unsafe housing conditions from Kirtland Air Force Base (KAFB) families, Congresswoman Deb Haaland (NM-01) demanded answers during a House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness hearing. The hearing covered the mismanagement of housing programs for military families.