Think you've had problems finding decent, affordable housing? The Pentagon has about 200,000 dilapidated houses and apartments to fix, a huge waiting list and nowhere near the $20 billion it says it needs to tackle the problem.

But the military hasn't given up the fight. Instead it's looking for allies in the private sector. And among the first to benefit from the latest battle plan would be about 7,000 military personnel and family members at Fort Meade.

The Army has picked the base, a sprawling installation in northwest Anne Arundel County, as one of three spots nationally where it will test privatization of family housing next year. Crummy housing could be knocked down or renovated. New homes would be built. And then the new landlords would be responsible for maintenance.

Soldiers who live on base traditionally don't pay rent or utilities. Those who live off-base receive a housing allowance to cover those expenses, but in many instances it falls short of the actual costs. Under privatization, a housing allowance for each soldier living in privately developed units on the base would go directly to the developer. The Army would also still pay for utilities.

Fort Meade's housing is in such poor shape that George L. Barbee, the Army's regional privatization program manager, expects just about everything to be demolished. Of 2,862 existing units, only 262 new town houses and some older units scheduled to be restored would survive. Most of the rest would be replaced with bigger and nicer homes, and 263 units would be added over the next 10 years.

It can't come soon enough for some assigned to Fort Meade. Take Air Force Tech. Sgt. James L. Jarvis, for instance. His experience is typical of what happens to new transfers as they check in with the Fort Meade housing office.

The 13-year Air Force enlistee, a single father, moved from Syracuse, N.Y., in July with children ages 7, 10 and 12. He wanted a four-bedroom house on base because it's hundreds of dollars a month cheaper than renting something similar from a private landlord, and because he has to pay the difference above his housing allowance. Also, his children attend school on base. Because housing prices are high here and military assignments can be short, buying a home is generally not an option.

But Jarvis couldn't get a four-bedroom. The waiting list was five to seven months. Four-bedroom homes are in the greatest demand at Fort Meade because so few were built before the days of career soldiering and because so many big families have come since.

When Jarvis looked off the base, the hot housing market limited his options. The best he was able to afford while he waits for base housing is a three-bedroom town house 30 minutes away.

"It's getting harder to make ends meet as time goes by," Jarvis said. "Rents were high when I got here and housing was very tight. I looked at one house in Columbia and 75 people showed up. They were seeing [applicants] one every 10 minutes."

If the Army's privatization plan works, the waiting list may not disappear. In fact, if Fort Meade proves as attractive to developers as the revved-up market promises, the new housing could draw even more applicants. Any military personnel within an hour's drive of Fort Meade can apply to live there, according to the Fort Meade housing staff.

But the hope is that the pilot program--and similar attempts by the Navy and the Air Force--will pave the way to better quarters sooner everywhere. The pilot programs are considered key to persuading Congress to extend the law authorizing privatization. The law expires in 2001.

Privatization is by no means a new idea. It has been on the plate since 1995, when then-Defense Secretary William Perry blamed bad housing for low morale and high turnover among military personnel.

Perry and others have drawn a clear picture: The members of today's military care about housing because they're in for the long haul. The days of the draft and of short-timers are gone. About 62 percent of Army personnel are married, and many are single parents, said Mahlon "Sandy" Apgar, assistant secretary of the Army in charge of privatization.

The Pentagon also paints a stark picture of what's broken. It would take $20 billion and 30 years to bring housing up to par across all branches of the service. The Army said 75 percent of its units need upgrades--the price tag is $6 billion. Fixing them would take 40 years at current spending levels.

But the march to privatization has been slow. The Army, Navy and Air Force were unfamiliar with the real estate business and pursued different privatization schemes. There also were setbacks: A lawsuit against an Army project in Fort Carson, Colo., derailed the Army effort for a while. Then a Navy project came in at such high rents that civilians ended up being the only ones who could afford them. (The Navy has since agreed to pay any costs above the housing allowance.)

Congress has complained repeatedly about the pace of the program. But when the Army decided last year to speed up the program and privatize every base, congressional overseers objected. The plan, they said, was too risky because no projects had been completed.

That led to Apgar's announcement this spring of the demonstration program, which also includes Fort Hood, Tex., and Fort Lewis, Wash.

At Fort Meade, the schedule calls for selecting a developer by July. The developer's plan would be due about eight months later.

The average wait for an on-base home at Fort Meade hit 24 months a few years ago, before downsizing and changes in housing procedures, according to base housing official Kris Lawrence. "But the only true waiting list now is for four-bedroom units and single-family houses for colonels," Lawrence said.

The bigger problem, Lawrence said, is the state of Fort Meade's housing. She rates it as "particularly unattractive" and cramped. Most units have only one bathroom and no family rooms or eat-in kitchens.

Because there hasn't been maintenance money in the federal budget, Lawrence said the aging quarters suffer from the typical problems of all older buildings: leaks, sewage backups, rickety stairs. About 180 units built in the 1930s are assigned only as a last resort.

So why do people still want to live on base? "Mostly, it's because the rents off-post are so high, and because of the sense of security that comes from living on post," Lawrence said.

Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Sorrell, for instance, said the rents around the base were a "shock," compared with what he used to pay and the size of his housing allowance.

Sorrell, 30, transferred from Fort Sill, Okla., in September for emergency medical reasons: His 3-year-old son, David, was diagnosed with encephalitis last year and needed treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

After "losing the whole right side of his brain and having a lot of seizures," Sorrell says, David can live at home. But Sorrell had to go on the waiting list for a four-bedroom unit for his wife, two children, the in-laws caring for David, and the family dog.

Sorrell is paying about $1,400 a month in rent and utilities for a three-bedroom town house in Severn. His monthly housing allowance is $934. He also paid a $1,450 security deposit from military transfer funds.

The experience "has been real stressful," the Alabama native said. "This was the only house I could find, to be honest with you." Sorrell paid only $650 a month for a "huge" home off-base in Oklahoma, where the housing allowances are lower. "I felt like royalty there," he said.

Newcomers sometimes move to Fort Meade with expectations that are too high, said housing official Lawrence. Partly, that's because the base puts pictures of its newest housing on its Web site and its relocation guides. Once people see the trim, attractive town houses built in 1996, "everybody thinks that's what the housing here looks like and everyone wants to live there," Lawrence said. But all 262 units are filled.

Army Sgt. Ivory H. Smith, who shares a new unit with his wife and two teenage sons, declares it "some of the nicest quarters I've lived in since I've been in the military." Smith had no waiting time when he arrived because he had just returned from a hardship tour in Korea.

No group is more interested in moving everyone into housing like Smith's than the National Military Family Association in Alexandria.

Getting decent housing quickly is why "the prospect of a big infusion of money from privatization is very interesting," said Joyce Raezer, the group's spokeswoman. But she added that the group is "watching privatization warily."

Her concern stems from the hitches encountered to date.

"They didn't realize how many questions would need to be addressed," said Raezer. "They don't train you in any of the service schools how to be a real estate developer. There are people at the Pentagon who never had to deal with a real estate development. They didn't even know what questions to ask. There's been a real steep learning curve."

The family association also is worried about what will happen in the long term. "Where's the money going to be in 20 years to replace the roofs? And who's going to hold those developers accountable?" Raezer said.

Barbee, the Army's regional privatization manager, said those concerns will be addressed through escrow accounts and other "safety nets" built into the agreements.

While Raezer is dubious, she said the good news is that privatization could protect the military from itself, and from congressional budget scavengers.

"In the past, maintenance has been kind of down on the bottom of everyone's list," Raezer said. "The pot you robbed for [military] readiness was maintenance.

"But if a developer owned those houses and collected the rents, when it was time to do the maintenance the money might actually be there. It wouldn't be going to maintenance on tanks or buying new tanks."

CAPTION: The demand for housing in areas such as the Argonne Hills development at Fort Meade, above, has led to the sort of horror stories shared in front of the base housing office by Staff Sgt. Thomas Sorrell, left, and Air Force Tech. Sgt. James L. Jarvis.

CAPTION: Army Sgt. Ivory H. Smith's hardship tour in Korea helped him land one of the relatively few new town houses at Fort Meade.