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With complaints about privatized military housing pouring into Washington, including from Hawaii, members of Congress are looking for ways to improve conditions for families.
Both the Senate and House Armed Services committees have drafted new regulations that are being called a “tenants’ bill of rights” for military families, and some changes appear likely to be enacted within the upcoming defense authorization bill.
The rules have been endorsed by the Department of Defense and individually by the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force.
In recent months, thousands of military families have reported they were trapped in leases for on-base homes that contained toxic mold, infestations of rats and other pests, sewage contamination, lead paint, broken appliances, water leaks and other serious hazards and inconveniences that their landlords failed to remediate.
Advocates for the military say that the private landlords, who gained control of federal government assets through the Military Housing Privatization Initiative of 1996 have profited from the federal government’s system of paying rent directly to them rather than to the tenants, which has given landlords little financial incentive to make timely repairs.
News reports in the past year contained many accounts of military families suffering damage to their health and finances, causing the Senate Armed Services Committee to investigate. At a hearing in February, senators of both parties called the situation an embarrassing crisis.
By April, however, little progress had been made, according to John Garamendi, chair of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, who said the panel was continuing to receive “large amounts of correspondence from military families struggling in today’s privatized housing,” while their complaints were treated with “shrugs of indifference” by military officers in their chains of command.
In interviews this month, advocates for military housing said the problems are continuing, but the high-level attention the situation is receiving has encouraged them.
“This has been a bipartisan issue,” said Shannon Razsadin, executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, which recently completed a national survey on the extent of the problem, which included many details about substandard housing in Hawaii. “Everybody is really upset that military families are living in these situations.”
Defense Department officials say they are cracking down on military officers and privatized companies, reminding them of their obligation to provide competent oversight and appropriate repair service to military families who live on base.
“We’ve developed corrective actions,” said Robert S. McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, responding to Garamendi’s concerns.
Two private landlords, Island Palms Communities and Ohana Military Communities, dominate the Oahu market, with Island Palms operating on-base housing at Hickam Air Force Base and Schofield Barracks and Ohana serving as landlord at Pearl Harbor and Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe.
Ann Wharton, a spokeswoman for Island Palm, did not respond to a request for comment.
Ohana executives said they are taking steps to remedy the situation.
“Resident safety is our top priority, so we continue to be cautious and thorough in dealing with this matter,” said Brenda Christman, a spokeswoman for Texas-based Hunt Companies, Ohana’s parent company.
Christman said the firm is following up every repair order to make sure it was properly completed, implementing semi-annual community information meetings at each of its 34 military housing communities and instituting a community advisory board program that will provide residents with a means of discussing issues and suggesting improvements.
The Senate and House Armed Services committees are working in conference committee to resolve differences between their versions of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020. Congressional staffers expect them to finish by mid-September.
It establishes that private housing on-base is subject to the same laws as civilian protections regarding federal, state and local housing laws, something that has been left unclear because of the unusual situation of for-profit firms operating on federal government lands.
“We have issues that are going to come forward for years, especially health issues.” — Shannon Razsadin, Military Family Advisory Network
It would also:
• Require that on-base housing should be safe, and meet “health and environmental standards” set by the Department of Defense, that homes should include “working fixtures, appliances and utilities,” with residents having an explicit right to report inadequate standards or repairs to the landlord, chain of command and housing management office “without fear of reprisal.”
• Call for housing repairs to be “prompt and professional,” with landlords required to provide information that is “honest, straight-forward and responsive,” and that residents should be informed of the “required time frame for those repairs.”
• Allow disputes to be resolved by a neutral decision-maker, with that person able to order the withholding of the payment of rent until a decision is made.
• Allow the secretary of defense to withhold funds to the landlords if they are found to be in breach of contract for the housing services they are providing. All homes would be required to be inspected and assessed for “structural integrity and habitability” by February 2020.
• Designate a chief housing officer to oversee the privatized housing program.
• Make installation commanders responsible for ensuring that housing meets acceptable standards.
• Establish a database, accessible to the public, of complaints relating to privatized housing units.
• Permit service members and their families to petition to the base commander to withhold payment of the Basic Housing Allowance pending completion of repairs if there have been persistent delays or the home is uninhabitable.
The House bill provides for some of the same things but also calls for independent housing advocates for military families and provides for a prohibition on the use of nondisclosure agreements required in leases for privatized on-base rentals.
Both the Senate and House versions call for monitoring lead-based paint in military dwellings.
The rule changes could help fix the problems, said Razsadin.
“They put a lot in there; it’s pretty comprehensive,” she said. “We’re optimistic.”
But she said some families have developed health conditions that will require long-term monitoring.
“One concern is that we have issues that are going to come forward for years, especially health issues, and it’s not necessarily going to be an instant manifestation if they have an illness that was caused by a home,” she said.
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