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Sen. Warren has a plan for military housing

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She’s co-sponsoring bill that aims to upgrade the poor state of privatized military housing for servicemembers

A bridge with decorative columns spans a highway in Georgia.
The entrance to the U.S. Army’s Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, in 2015. The base is one of many where Reuters reporters found substandard housing conditions for military families.

A striking report released by the Army Inspector General this week found that housing for members of the U.S. military run by private companies is substandard and poorly maintained, and in many cases, provides the companies with long-term profits.

At a time when the federal government is redirecting funds appropriated for schools and other infrastructure improvements on military bases to pay for the border wall, the report underscores continued difficulty to provide quality housing and living conditions for our soldiers. Part of a series of official investigations that have uncovered disturbing conditions for military families, these revelations inspired Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Deb Haaland to introduce the Military Housing Oversight and Service Member Protection Act in April, a bill that aims to improve the state of military housing.

”Our servicemembers make sacrifices to protect our country, and they and their families deserve safe, affordable housing that isn’t falling apart around them,” Senator Warren said in a statement. “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.”

At nearly all locations, “residents expressed concerns with safety or environmental issues and some level of dissatisfaction with their privatized housing experience,” the Inspector General’s report laid out. The private contractors who provided and maintained these housing facilities “placed the interests of affiliate companies above life, health and safety,” according to residents at all locations investigated.

Warren and Haaland’s act would increase oversight, and order the Secretary of Defense to establish formal written guidelines for all contracts, establish basic tenant protections, create a public database for tenant complaints, and disallow Department of Defense (DOD) officials from investing in privatized housing providers. It would also hold private contractors liable for health issues that arise from substandard maintenance.

Beginning with the 1996, when Congress established the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI) as a way to enlist the private sector to help update aging housing stock, the DOD has worked with corporate partners who would own, operate, and maintain military family housing while getting access to federal loans, guarantees, and incentives. Reuters said that the MHPI was “the largest-ever corporate takeover of federal housing,” and corporations involved in the program are given leases of 50 years.

Living on military housing is voluntary for service members, but roughly 30 percent of military families decide to utilize this housing, in part to help build community and relationships.

In the past year, a number of other investigations and Reuters reports uncovered numerous hazards and substandard conditions, including: exposure to lead paint, vermin infestations, fecal and urine trails, bursting pipes, flooding, mold growth, collapsed ceilings, and electric and fire hazards, as well as an overall poor standard of maintenance and upkeep. Reuters testing of base housing units found a number of examples of lead paint risk multiple times above the acceptable federal level.

Military families often fear reporting or challenging private landlords, the Reuters report found, because they fear angering companies in business with military leadership. These landlords also set up webs of subcontractors and subsidiaries, which make it difficult for military tenants to get problems addressed, and for the military to hold them accountable and track revenues and profits.

”These companies know how to treat customers in their private business, [but] it feels like they were [saying], ‘We’ve got a captive audience with these poor schlubs in the military, and we’re not going to do anything for them,’” Senator Tim Kaine told earlier this year.

The military was aware of the risks, Reuters reported: A 2005 Army environmental study found that “75 percent of its 90,000 homes nationwide didn’t meet its own standards of quality or safety.”

The proposed bill has been endorsed by the Military Officers Association of America, the National Military Family Association, and the Military Housing Advocacy Network.