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Senators Seek to Strengthen Oversight of Military Housing Firms

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Legislation proposed Wednesday by the Senate Armed Services Committee aims to improve the Pentagon’s oversight of privately managed military housing and bolster a service member’s right to live in a clean, safe home.

The draft fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act includes a tenant bill of rights for troops who live in on-base housing, similar to one currently being considered by the military services.

But it also contains measures that would require homes to be in clean, working order on move-in day and would require that base commanders and military personnel responsible for the Military Housing Privatization Initiative, or MHPI, program receive performance evaluations on housing.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, said the measures are needed because military personnel have been dealing with housing problems “no commercial tenant would put up with.”

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“These companies know how to treat customers in their private business, [but] it feels like they were, ‘We’ve got a captive audience with these poor schlubs in the military, and we’re not going to do anything for them,'” Kaine said during a phone call with reporters Thursday.

Problems began surfacing in 2011 with reports of mold and substandard conditions in homes managed by private firms awarded 50-year contracts to run military housing.

A scandal erupted last year, however, following a series of scathing reports by Reuters that found unsanitary and unsafe living conditions in base homes, with private companies largely ignoring tenants’ complaints.

Since February, Army, Navy and Air Force leaders have inspected thousands of homes, developed a draft tenants’ bill of rights and made plans to hire customer service representatives to advocate for residents.

The draft Senate bill, if approved, would ensure that the Defense Department continues to address the problem.

It would allow an additional $301.8 million to be used to hire and retain government housing personnel to oversee the MHPI program, funds that senior Senate Armed Services Committee staff officials say would help reduce housing employee turnover and improve oversight.

Military families had complained that federal housing officials, whose jobs are to manage the private companies and protect tenants, share office space with company employees and often side with them on disputes rather than advocate for service members.

On Thursday, the committee staff members, who discussed the contents of the bill on background, said the funds would be used to hire personnel to represent the tenants and to improve salaries to reduce employee turnover.

“Some of the installations we visited over the last few months, we saw reductions of up to 80% of the workforce over the last five to 10 years,” one committee staff member said, referring to government housing employees.

The Senate bill also would institute new quality-assurance and quality-control measures and increase the number of health and hazard inspections.

The committee did not release the complete text of the proposed bill, instead issuing an executive summary, but Kaine said the legislation definitely would give troops and the individual services the ability to exercise greater oversight over the private contractors.

He said he is particularly proud of the “move out” provision, which would require management companies to fulfill all maintenance requests prior to move out so tenants don’t get charged for problems that should have been fixed while they lived in the home.

“The ‘move out’ provision is also a ‘move in’ provision. Families moving across the country have enough to do when they get to a new city … without having to move into a pigpen that a company hasn’t cleaned up,” Kaine said.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, introduced the provision that installation commanders be rated on their base housing. She said it means to address the “hands-off” approach the military appears to have taken since outsourcing management of base housing in the early 2000s.

“[This] helps ensure military commanders have more of a personal stake in their oversight duties of Military Housing Privatization Initiative facilities and remain engaged in its proper management,” according to Duckworth.

— Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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