Over the past year, service members and their spouses have drawn attention to housing complexes that are infested with mold and sewage. They say such conditions have been allowed to persist because some profit-minded contractors have consistently ignored maintenance requests, enabled by a systemic lack of oversight from the Defense Department.
The privately run housing is a relic of a late-1990s privatization drive in which the Pentagon outsourced management of on-base housing in hopes of reducing bureaucracy. Today, there are 14 housing contractors responsible for 79 privatized military housing developments across the United States — 34 for the Army, 32 for the Air Force and 13 for the Navy and Marine Corps.
The hearing drew the highest-ranking officials from each of the four major services: Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps.
It also drew dozens of military family members who clapped and cheered as the top officials were questioned.
One lawmaker asked why no one has been indicted over the issue. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), whose state is home to Marine Corps Base Camp LeJeune and the Army’s Fort Bragg, asked when the Defense Department would start bringing contractors to court over breach of contract, to which McCarthy replied: “We might be there right now, sir.”
In response to a request for comment, McCarthy said in a statement that the Army had delegated the housing issue to Gen. Gus Perna, a four-star general who heads the Army Material Command, and has given him the authority to withhold fees from private contractors. The Defense Department is also working on a “tri-service bill of rights” that will give residents a clearer avenue for recourse.
“While the Army has worked hard over the past ten months to make significant strides in the way we manage privatized housing, there is much more work to be done,” McCarthy’s statement said.
The hearing was accompanied by a preliminary report from the Government Accountability Office, which faulted the methods the Pentagon has used to track the problem.
The GAO said it found “anomalies” in work order data from all 14 of the military’s privatized housing contractors, including duplicate work orders, work orders with completion dates from before they were submitted, and work orders that were marked “in-progress” for longer than 18 months.
Ann Stefanek, chief of media operations at the Air Force, said the department is working to fix the issues raised by the GAO.
“We recognized the anomalies last March and have been working with the other services to improve the process,” Stefanek said in an email. “We are currently redesigning the survey and providing the Department of Defense raw survey data for their reporting metrics.”
The GAO took issue with a figure provided repeatedly by the defense secretary’s office, which claimed an 87 percent satisfaction rate for military housing. The GAO found that the departments had changed the survey questions in a way that de-emphasized privatized housing.
The GAO report pointed to a survey question that the office said should be structured as “would you recommend privatized housing.” Instead, residents were asked to what extent they agree or disagree with the statement: “I would recommend this community to others.”
Lawmakers at Tuesday’s hearing seemed clearly frustrated with the answers provided.
Referencing the GAO’s findings, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said, “The fact that 87 percent agreed with that statement tells us exactly nothing about housing,” adding, “I don’t know whether to feel accidentally misled or intentionally misled.”
Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) joked that the private-sector individuals who resolve residents’ disputes should have to wear T-shirts that say “slumlord” on them, and suggested that the contractor executives be forced to spend the holidays in their own housing complexes.