Five months ago, everybody in Washington seemed in agreement that quick and significant action was needed to fix the deplorable housing conditions on military bases in Hawaii and around the nation.
Hearings were held, legislative proposals drafted and a package of reforms, dubbed the military tenants’ bill of rights, was affixed to the National Defense Authorization Act, legislation that has historically rocketed to passage with bipartisan approval.
The $750 billion NDAA for fiscal year 2020 shot out of the Senate Armed Services Committee with almost unanimous support in May and passed in June, leaving plenty of time for passage before the Oct. 1 deadline.
In July, the House approved its own measure, though with a stark partisan split. The legislation moved to the conference committee. Senate staffers confidently said it would be enacted within weeks.
But in an era of hyper-partisanship, nothing in Washington appears to go according to plan.
“It’s unusual it’s taken this long since it went to conference before the recess in August,” said Rachel Carson, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia. That state, like Hawaii, is home to many military bases with housing problems.
The package of reforms has instead encountered a buzzsaw of delays, including pushback from industry lobbyists and gridlock over immigration at the southern border. The political bickering tied to the bill has grown so fierce that there is a question as to whether the reforms will be enacted at all, particularly if the NDAA fails to win passage before the end of the year.
Consensus On The Problem
No one questions the extent of the problem anymore.
In the past year, thousands of service members living in base housing in Hawaii and around the nation have come forward to complain about dangerous, unsanitary and unhealthy homes owned and operated by for-profit companies.
In surveys and in interviews, they reported toxic mold, pesticide contamination, rat infestations and lead-based paint, with the private companies that operate the housing unwilling to make appropriate repairs.
In September, the Army Inspector General reported that its inspection of 49 military installations, including six in Hawaii, had found that “residents at all locations believed that the property management company places the interests of affiliate companies above life, health and safety,” with maintenance “reduced to the point of being ineffective.”
At 48 of the 49 locations, residents had expressed concern about safety and environmental issues, citing mold, asbestos, water quality and open sewage, the Army reported.
In Hawaii, the private companies that own and control military housing on base are a Texas firm, the Hunt Cos., operating in Hawaii as Ohana Military Communities, and an Australia company, Lendlease, which operates here under the name Island Palm Communities. The companies have said they are working to remedy the problems.
Since 1996, more than 200,000 housing units on military bases nationwide have been shifted into private hands, most of them under 50-year lease agreements that favor the companies. Rent for the units is transferred to the firms electronically by the federal government regardless of resident complaints, creating little incentive to make repairs.
At the hearings in Washington in February and April, after hearing testimony from service members about appalling conditions, lawmakers from both parties expressed disgust and concern and pledged to boost congressional oversight and make regulatory reforms.
The Defense Department responded by calling for rules termed the tenants’ bill of rights, including a requirement that on-base housing be safe and conform to civilian health laws, that fixtures and appliances should operate properly, that housing repairs should be done promptly and that a database should be created to track complaints.
Additional efforts required legislation, and Hawaii’s senators are playing key roles shepherding those measures.
Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is also part of the conference committee. Sen. Brian Schatz serves on the military construction subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. Both support the reform package and have worked within Congress to introduce key provisions of it.
The defense spending bill was approved in slightly different forms by the House and Senate, with both versions containing military housing reforms.
The Senate version, for example, calls for regular inspections, a dispute resolution process, improved disclosures, methods to track repair requests, withholding of incentive fees to private firms for failing to remedy health and environmental concerns and lead-based testing and reporting. The measure would provide up to $302 million for housing oversight counselors.
But in early September, Defense Department officials announced they planned to divert $3.6 billion from the planned list of construction projects in the spending bill to build a 175-mile extension to the border wall along the southern U.S. border, a long-time preoccupation and campaign promise of President Donald Trump.
Democrats reacted in fury.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington state, likened the proposal to theft, saying the “Trump administration is stealing funds from the military to fulfill a partisan campaign promise.”
Last month, Schatz joined with a few other senators in introducing legislation that would ban Trump from taking money from the defense bill, which a press release characterized as a “vanity border wall.”
“Our bill will stop this reckless abuse of power and restore funding to the military so that the men and women in our armed services have the resources they need to protect our country,” he said in a prepared statement at the time.
No Agreement In Sight
So far, there has been no path to resolution over the wall or funding for it.
“The biggest fight is over the wall,” said Carson, the spokeswoman for Warner’s office. “Everything else in the bill is a victim to that.”
As this was happening, the largest of the for-profit housing providers, known as private-public ventures or PPVs, formed a trade group, the Military Housing Association.
On Sept. 11, Military Times reported that officials of the new organization were already meeting with congressional staff members and sending them letters and memos explaining why some of the proposed reforms were ill-advised errors that would destabilize the privatized housing program.
The White House echoed industry concerns in a letter to Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, calling the reform provisions “legally and practically impossible to implement” and “overly burdensome and prescriptive.”
Some who have watched the issue develop noticed that the group seemed to have made an impact.
“I think they have political clout and they certainly have the money to hire lobbyists,” said Crystal Cornwall, executive director and founder of the Safe Military Housing Initiative, a group of service members and their spouses who are advocating for better housing conditions, in an email. “The PPVs, most of them anyway, have the support of their partner, the DoD.”
Negotiations over the NDAA stalled and on Oct. 1, the fiscal year ended. The Department of Defense is now operating under a kind of temporary funding, known as a continuing resolution.
Last week, Inhofe introduced a substitute version of the NDAA. He said he was filing what he called a “skinny” bill, a non-controversial, skeleton measure he said would ensure essential funding for the military.
In a statement made on the Senate floor, Inhofe said that he would prefer to pass the full NDAA, but that time is running out to meet the end of year deadline for a more complicated bill.
“We can sit around and do nothing through the month of November, and when December gets here, all of a sudden, we are going to be faced with the fact that we are going to have some bill that takes care of just the military, not all the other stuff that is on the bill,” he said.
It’s a notable reversal. In September, Inhofe had said the tenants’ bill of rights was vitally needed.
A Call For Bipartisanship
In an emailed statement, Schatz said he was optimistic that the problems in base housing would be addressed.
“While many in Congress are caught up in partisan fights, supporting our service members and their families is one area that has strong bipartisan support,” he said.
Some congressional staffers think a kind of brinkmanship is underway, and that the two sides will inevitably come together in passing a comprehensive defense spending bill.
Cornwall, who leads the service members’ housing advocacy group, has been watching the process with concern. But she is taking a long-term view of the problem and its solution.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that everyone knows military housing reform is necessary,” she said, adding that “such a complex, expensive and multifaceted problem” would not in any case be addressed in any single legislative session.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.