Military leaders pledge 'Tenant Bill of Rights'

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein and Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson provide testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington D.C., Mar. 7, 2019. The committee examined privatized military housing for service members and their families. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Wayne Clark)

Arlington, Va. (AFNS) — The civilian and military leaders of the Air Force, Navy and Army attempted March 8 to convince skeptical senators that they are working aggressively — and effectively — to correct poorly maintained military housing that has left some homes coated in mold, infested with rodents and with other problems affecting health and safety.

“Our military families deserve good housing,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And when there’s a problem with a house, it should be fixed promptly and competently. Moreover, our airmen should be comfortable that they can identify problems without any fear of retaliation.”

Wilson was joined by Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper and Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer as well as the military chiefs of each service — Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, Marine Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson.

Each was alternately contrite and outraged, apologizing for the not attacking the problem sooner but promising swift and decisive action. The responses followed blunt assessments from a number of senators.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and committee chairman, said reports of substandard housing are “heart wrenching.” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who is the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the current state of housing on some bases is the result of “systemic failures on the part of contractors and Department of Defense.”

The service secretaries and chiefs each acknowledged the problem.

“In too many cases, it is clear the private housing companies failed to uphold their end of the bargain, a failure that was enabled by the Army’s insufficient oversight,” Esper said. “We are determined to investigate these problems and to hold our housing contractors and chains of command … accountable.”

To underscore their response, leaders of each service described their services’ review of base housing. Wilson told senators that the Air Force completed its review on March 1 and that she personally visited housing at MacDill, Tinker and Shaw Air Force Bases. Goldfein saw housing and met families at Keesler and Maxwell AFBs.

Each found problems and substandard maintenance that “were very consistent with the testimony that you heard from the families that came forward,” Goldfein said. “And I’ll second what the secretary said, that the most concerning to me that I found was the breakdown in trust that we’ve got to rebuild.”

A major part of the corrective effort, the officials told senators, is creation of a tenant bill of rights. An early version of the document has been released. It provides service personnel who live in military housing more authority and stronger tools to alert the chain of command to problems and force action.

Foremost is the ability of renters to withhold payment if problems are properly reported to the private companies that manage the homes but are not addressed or resolved.

How long it will take to enact the tenant bill of rights, however, is unclear. Spencer said it could take 90 days because it requires contacting each company that manages military housing to inform “and educate” them about new expectations and consequences for not complying.

Beyond the bill of rights and stronger commander involvement, the service secretaries and chiefs said they will work to ensure that base housing authorities are sufficiently staffed and trained. Wilson said she as part of her review, at bases where housing is well maintained and satisfaction ratings are high, the housing authority is strong.

“One of the bases that I went to was one that was rated as performing well and when you have a contract housing office where the contractor is performing well, we probably have enough people in that housing office,” Wilson said. “But when performance starts to slide that’s when it becomes overtaxed. So how we put the people back (to) give support to the base commanders where it’s really needed is … going to be the key decision point.”

Wilson, Goldfein and the other leaders also said that commanders must work harder to understand the state of housing on their bases and to respond aggressively and quickly. In addition, each secretary and service chief said there would be “zero tolerance” for retaliation when problems are reported.

“If people feel that if they act there will be retaliation, people will not act,” Wilson said.

The Air Force and other services are also looking at the terms of leases to determine if universal language might be used. They also are examining building codes and how building inspectors from local governments are used to ensure that safe and most up-to-date standards are used.