OnWatch is a quarterly newsletter of the Fleet Reserve
April 4, 2019
Military Housing Bill of Rights
Recently, several hearings have been held on Capitol Hill to investigate the conditions of military base housing. Military base housing was privatized in the mid-1990s, due to deplorable conditions and the government being unable to manage the maintenance efficiently. Over the past few years, several reports, including years-long investigations by Reuters, have surfaced regarding dirty conditions at military houses run by private management companies. These conditions include faulty wiring, exposed plumbing, poor water quality, vermin infestations, mold and lead contamination, raw sewage or other toxic exposures that have had negative health impacts for all residents—many of whom are young children. Military officials and legislators have promised to take action.
The Reuters investigation and military advocacy groups report the companies that operate military housing are often non-responsive, provide only superficial fixes or blame the service member for the problems. In some instances, service members have been charged fees associated with the remediation of their own homes. A Military Family Advisory Network survey of active duty personnel found 56 percent of the more than 17,000 respondents, reported a “negative” or “very negative” opinion of their living conditions, which the Network concluded showed a “systemic problem.”
The Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer and the other military branch secretaries announced during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that they are preparing a joint Tenant Bill of Rights that would help ensure service members and their families have safe, quality homes and communities and clearly understand their rights while living in them. It is intended to increase the accountability of privatized housing companies by putting more oversight authority in the hands of local military leaders. All three service secretaries claimed they have seen firsthand and reviewed problems in housing units. The Tenant Bill of Rights will be enforced through renegotiated leases with the privatized housing companies.
Among other things, tenants will have the right to:
• Safe and healthy homes and communities, with working fixtures, appliances and utilities and well-maintained common areas.
• A housing advocate designated by the installation chain of command to be their advocate before the landlord.
• Effective methods of two-way communication with the landlord and maintenance staff, with honest and responsive communications from those staffs.
• Prompt, professional repairs. If life, health and safety repairs are not finished within 30 days, the resident will be offered a no-cost move into an alternative residence on the installation or in the civilian community.
• A process for dispute resolution, mediation and arbitration. A decision in favor of the resident will include a determination of any reduction in rent that is owed by the landlord to be paid to the resident. No reprisal if the residents engage government housing staff or the installation chain of command regarding housing issues.
• Professional property management services that meet or exceed industry standards.
The Ensuring Safe Housing for our Military Act (S.703), introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), would require installation commanders to withhold the service member’s rent from the landlord after officials have been notified of potential health, safety or environmental hazard, until steps are taken to remedy the problem and the military housing official and the service member agree that it has been fixed.
Provisions of the bill include:
• Basic allowance for housing: The installation commander shall withhold payment of a service member’s housing allowance until a military housing official has inspected an environmental, safety or health hazard, verified that appropriate remediation has taken place, and the service member concurs that the remediation is satisfactory. In the case that the hazard requires the servicemember to leave the housing unit, the housing company will pay all relocation costs.
• Housing costs: Prohibits payment of a deposit and any fee or penalty related to ending a lease early, except for normal wear and tear. The bill also requires contractors to reimburse service members for damage to their private property caused by a hazard.
• Withholding incentive fees: Requires the Secretary of Defense to withhold incentive fees to any contractor who persistently fails to remedy hazards.
• Common credentials: Creates standard credentials for health, safety and environmental inspectors across services, and including contractors, to ensure consistent inspection practices.
• Additional transparency for service members: Requires the Defense Department to establish an electronic system so that service members can track and oversee their work orders.
The Navy and Marine Corps have taken steps of their own to address the housing issues and to give their sailors and Marines some peace of mind. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith said in a release, the Navy will be conducting home inspections and reach out to “100 percent of Sailors living in government and Public Private Venture (PPV) family housing. Every Sailor residing in PPV or government housing will be afforded an opportunity for a visit from their command at their residence no later than April 15, 2019.” The visits will be voluntary and by invitation only. These visits will serve as an opportunity to help sailors and their families resolve any outstanding housing issues. “This is unacceptable and will be resolved,” Richardson wrote on Twitter. “We are prioritizing efforts to better understand our Sailors’ living conditions in on-base government family and PPV housing to ensure that as residents they are provided with the quality of life they have earned and deserve.” Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller said, “[He] expects commanders to know how their Marines and Sailors are living and to advocate for them.” The Marine Corps issued a “white letter” to commanders and senior enlisted leaders to conduct voluntary home visits to all who reside in government quarters, privatized military housing or off-base civilian rental property by April 15.
The FRA has written a letter of support for the Ensuring Safe Housing for our Military Act. Show your support by going to the FRA Action Center and share your opinion.
OnWatch is a quarterly news update for active duty and Reserve personnel, written by Brian Condon. He served four years on Active Duty in the Marine Corps. Condon began his career with the Fleet Reserve Association (FRA), as Assistant Director of Veterans Programs on October 2015. He is committed to FRA's mission to maintain and improve the quality of life for Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard personnel and their families. You can reach Brian directly on any of FRA's advocacy issues at BrianC@fra.org