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Defense Department needs to fix military housing oversight, GAO report says

Fourteen private companies manage 99% of housing on military bases in the United States, amounting to about 200,000 homes.

JEFF NYHART/DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 27, 2020

The Defense Department needs more home inspections on bases and stronger communication with military families to make certain chronic complaints about issues such as water leaks, mold and rodents are addressed, according to a federal watchdog report.

The Government Accountability Office report was requested by Congress to review ongoing military housing issues following a 2018 Reuters investigation that exposed mold and pest infestations plagued some military families living on base housing across the country. The news coverage set into motion a series of congressional hearings and public scrutiny into military housing, which was privatized in 1996, and raised questions about military’s oversight of the private companies managing the homes.

Fourteen private companies manage 99% of housing on military bases in the United States, amounting to about 200,000 homes. The companies are responsible for 79 privatized military housing projects — 34 for the Army, 32 for the Air Force and 13 for the Navy and the Marine Corps, according to the report. Each project has its own contract and business agreement that guides its operations, property management and the management of funds.

The 82-page GAO report — titled “Military Housing: DOD Needs to Strengthen Oversight and Clarify Its Role in the Management of Privatized Housing”— highlights 12 steps that the defense and service secretaries should take to improve oversight while also accounting for the changes they’ve made since housing issues came to light nearly two years ago. The recommendations focus on stronger accountability and better communication from the military to residents and Congress.

Recommendations call for more physical inspections, improved performance evaluations so they better reflect the condition of homes, standardized and validated work orders, the collection of data regarding resident satisfaction, better understanding of the difference between housing offices and management companies, and a review of the financial viability of the management agreements.

Some of the information and recommendations of the report were released in December and March through congressional testimony by the report’s author, Elizabeth A Field, GAO’s director of defense capabilities and management.

In December, Field testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on portions of the report that show data collected to determine the satisfaction of residents living in privatized military housing and the living conditions of the homes available to them was unreliable and potentially misleading.

That included data collected from satisfaction surveys sent to residents as well as data from maintenance request work orders obtained from the private companies — much of which was used to report housing satisfaction rates to Congress.

In May 2019, the Pentagon officials told Congress that privatized military housing scored an 87% satisfaction rate from residents based on a 2017 annual survey. But the GAO’s research found this statistic was calculated with “errors and inaccuracies,” such as it was missing surveys from four Army bases that account for about 18% of its housing inventory.

For those families who do experience problems with their home and then face problems getting resolution from the private management company, the military housing offices did not effectively communicate their role as a resource for service members, according to the report. Some offices housed military personnel with employees of the private companies, leaving residents confused about which group they were actually speaking to when they went to the office for help.

The report also found some Defense Department and private management company officials fear some of the new initiatives put in place by Congress in the wake of the military housing crisis could degrade the financial viability of the agreements.

Defense officials also told GAO researchers that they have concerns that some initiatives such as increased frequency of inspections between old and new tenants of a home could result in homes remaining vacant longer than planned during high tenant turnover periods. This could unintentionally impact a project’s cash flow, according to the report.

In its conclusion, the report urged the military and private companies to “take steps to improve the resident experience with privatized military housing and increase the department’s focus on the condition of privatized homes, ensuring that their efforts do not inadvertently harm the financial viability of these projects.”

The GAO is working on three more reports related to base housing, Field said. They are expected to be released early next year and will cover how the basic housing allowance for service members is determined, the Army’s privatized lodging program and the impact of severe weather events on the financial health of certain privatized housing projects.

thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori

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