The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

Military Housing: Unfit to Serve

Infestations of rats, mice and other rodents. Toxic black mold. Lead paint.

The deplorable conditions of a lot of low-income housing -- in urban areas, on American Indian reservations and in unincorporated communities along the Mexican border, for example -- is well known.

But these conditions are also found in the housing provided to our military personnel. Basically, they are the equivalent of “4F” -- the military classification that means someone is unfit to serve.

“I noticed chipping paint on our outside entry doors and on all of our windows, and became concerned it was lead paint,” a resident of privatized military housing in South Carolina said in a report to a Senate subcommittee.

“When I mentioned it to maintenance, they shrugged it off,” the resident continued. “I was told I did not have lead paint by one person over the phone. After being denied several times for my concerns, I ordered my own lead check test kit. When I tested the door and window, it came back positive.”

The report from the Military Family Advisory Network is full of troubling testimony like this about how poorly some of our service people are housed. Here’s another instance:

“My house had strong electrical currents that would severely shock you, and when we complained, they said it was ‘dry air,’” a New York resident reported. “Then an outlet blew, frying my computer (that was plugged into a surge protector) and almost setting my house on fire.

“Had to do a sit-down strike at management to get them to bring an electrician in,” the resident continued. “Turns out, my house wasn’t properly grounded, which the outside electrician said was common for these military houses.”

The report makes for eye-opening reading. After surveying some 17,000 military residents in 46 states, MFAN discovered our soldiers, sailors and airmen and women shared their military housing with a wide array of unwelcome guests: roaches, ants, fleas, wasps, bees, spiders, bedbugs, mosquitoes, ticks, crickets, worms, termites, beetles, maggots, silverfish, earwigs, rats, mice, squirrels, shrews, moles, skunks, bats, snakes and birds.

One respondent reported having 400 bats in her attic.

These problems are occurring in “privatized” military housing, in which the Pentagon has contracted base housing ownership and management to private firms.

More than half our service members live off-base, but there’s still a lot of privatized military housing. How much? The Department of Defense reports there are 202,000 such units on its bases.

News reports and congressional investigations have sparked action all the way to the top. Last fall, Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as executives from some of the private companies that own and manage the properties -- outfits such as Lincoln Military Housing, Balfour Beatty, Hunt Military Communities and Corvias Military Living -- to determine how these issues are being addressed. The military services and the private managers have come up with a remediation plan that includes:

-- Establishing a resident bill of rights and common lease framework.

-- Increasing transparency and reporting service work orders.

-- Enhancing ongoing oversight and leader engagement.

-- Improving communication with residents at all levels.

But it’s not certain that’s going to be enough for some in Congress, who have denounced the shoddy housing provided for some of our military men and women and their families.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland introduced a bill to improve housing conditions for service personnel after Warren conducted an investigation and forwarded her findings to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Haaland -- whose district includes Kirtland Air Force Base, adjacent to Albuquerque -- pointed to an Army inspector general’s report that found “widespread failures by the private housing companies to provide adequate housing, and Department of Defense failures to adequately oversee its Military Housing Privatization Initiative.”

While acknowledging problems in the MHPI program, the Pentagon still supports privatized base housing. It says the initiative solved a $20 billion maintenance backlog by leveraging private finance to the tune of $32 billion to rehab old units, with a DOD outlay of just $4 billion.

Meanwhile, families at several bases have sued their property managers over what they allege are unsafe and unhealthy housing conditions.

In the latest development, the Government Accountability Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- has weighed in with a report to Congress. And Elizabeth A. Field, a director in GAO’s defense capabilities and management department, whacked the Pentagon and its military departments in testimony to a House subcommittee.

Speaking about the GAO’s preliminary recommendations to strengthen Pentagon oversight of privatized housing, Field said that while the administration conducts some oversight, some of those efforts “have been limited in scope.”

Among other things, the GAO found:

-- The performance metrics the military departments use to monitor private partners fail to provide meaningful information on the condition of housing.

-- The maintenance data collected is not reliable or consistent.

-- The reports DOD provides Congress on the status of privatized housing are unreliable.

The GAO’s draft report recommends the Pentagon “take steps to improve housing condition oversight, performance metrics, maintenance data and resident satisfaction reporting, as well as to assess the risk of initiatives on project finances.”

-- Freelance writer Mark Fogarty contributed to this column.