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Defense secretary signs tenant bill of rights for military families

John Hoyt, the Hunt military communities vice president, explains the mold remediation work being done by Hunt at Keesler Air Force Base's Bay Ridge Housing to base leadership on Aug. 28, 2018.

KEMBERLY GROUE/U.S. AIR FORCE

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 26, 2020

The Defense Department’s top officials signed a tenant bill of rights Tuesday that includes 15 of the 18 rights Congress mandated all military families have while living in privatized base housing, according to a news release.

The document takes effect May 1 and offers rights for the roughly 10% of military service members and their families who live in base housing managed by private companies. Those rights ensure they have access to “safe, quality and well-maintained homes and communities on DoD installations,” according to the two-page document signed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the three service branch secretaries.

The need for the bill of rights, which reiterates many safety issues and lease requirements already required of rental housing through federal and state laws, comes after Reuters began reporting in 2018 on the poor conditions of some military housing, including mold and pest infestations, lead paint and inadequate maintenance systems.

Since then, Congress has stepped in and held hearings to determine the best steps to solve these problems. The National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2020, which passed in December, included the largest reform of military housing since it was privatized in 1996 and mandated the creation of a tenant bill of rights, among other oversight improvements.

Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., a member of the House Armed Service Committee, said while she’s happy to see the bill of rights rolled out for military families, there is much more work to do.

“It’s a critically important issue for families and it’s impacting our nation’s readiness in so many ways,” she said during a phone call Wednesday. “It is moving us in the right direction, but, to me, we aren’t finished.”

Military families move often, and, in many cases, the service member and spouse will move separately — so some of the rights target specific challenges faced by military families.

Those include the right to a “plain-language” briefing from the housing office before signing a lease and 30 days after move-in that outlines processes for utilities, work orders and dispute resolution, the right to report housing concerns to the landlord, chain of command and base housing office without fear of reprisal, the right to a tenant advocate or legal assistance attorney to prepare for dispute resolution, and the right to common forms and procedures across all military bases.

Other rights focus on the basic rights any tenant, military or otherwise, should be able to expect from their landlord, such as the right to prompt maintenance repairs, an electronic maintenance system to track work orders, reasonable notice of the landlord’s entry to the home, convenient methods of communication with the landlord and courteous, responsive customer service.

“The tenant bill of rights isn’t perfect, but it is progress,” Shannon Razsadin, executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, said in a statement. “This is a step toward accountability and rebuilding the trust that has eroded around this issue. We are honored to have been a part of this effort, but we are most grateful for the families who bravely shared their stories.”

Three rights mandated by Congress were not included in the bill of rights signed Tuesday, but the document states that “the department will continue to work with the [private management] companies and, as necessary, Congress to ensure the benefits of these rights are fully available.”

They are the rights to access to maintenance history, a process for dispute resolution and withholding of rent until disputes are resolved.

“While the department develops standardized, formal processes for these rights, service members and their families will be able to leverage the support available from their respective military departments to address and resolve relevant housing issues. Tenants seeking assistance should continue to engage their housing office, installation leadership, or chain of command,” according to the document.

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday to discuss the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2021 budget, Esper faced questions about the bill of rights from Horn. Esper said legal contracts between the department and private housing companies are delaying these items.

“We have a pathway on some of these to move forward to find a mutually agreeable way to meet the intent and the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. But I think we are going to have to come back and work with you all as well to assist us,” he said. “What I don’t want to do is promise a right that I can’t deliver on.”

Horn said after the hearing she is still concerned about why these three rights need more time and also the “lack of responsiveness which we have continued to see, quite frankly, from some of these companies.”

“The questions that I have are access to maintenance history, the process for dispute resolution and withholding rent are pretty basic and were at the heart of the provisions that we enacted,” Horn said. “I understand there have been agreement in place, but I think it is pretty clear from our findings and investigative reports that the companies who signed these contracts and were getting performances payments for many of these installations were not upholding their responsibilities on those contracts.”

There are 14 private companies that work with the military to manage base housing within the United States.

“DoD and military department leaders met with the project owners during the tenant bill of rights development process,” said Chuck Prichard, Defense Department spokesman. The bill of rights signed Tuesday “reflects the 15 provisions that the project owners have agreed upon and indicates the three that are still being discussed.”

A spokesperson for Balfour Beatty Communities, which oversees 43,000 homes with about 150,000 residents in 26 states, said “Balfour Beatty Communities wholeheartedly supports the tenant bill of rights. We are working with the Department of Defense and will ensure our teams successfully meet all the obligations.”

Lincoln Military Housing, which oversees housing at more than 30 bases, released a similar statement, stating the company “remains committed to continue working with the services as they implement the provisions of the 2020 NDAA. We support the tenant bill of rights and look forward to working with DOD to implement it across the Lincoln Military Housing portfolio."

To enforce the bill of rights, the Defense Department has requested $54.6 million in its fiscal year 2021 budget request to increase oversight of private housing contracts, Prichard said. That’s an 82% increase over the previous year.

This funding increase will help the department meet fiscal year 2020 NDAA requirements, to include staff augmentation, improved quality control measures, database development and management and additional training and contract costs, he said.

However, the nonprofit advocacy group Safe Military Housing Initiative expressed some concern over enforcement of the bill of rights.

“We are pleased that the DoD has published the resident bill of rights and understand that the three missing provisions require more logistical and legal complexities to be resolved before execution,” said cofounders Crystal Cornwall and Jean Coffman in a statement. “We are concerned, however, that this progress is still lacking in enforcement and are looking forward to the addition of the congressionally-appointed housing chief, as enforcement will ensure that our military families will receive speedy, objective, fair and consistent treatment.”

Horn said she was glad to see the increased funding request and wants to be an advocate for what else is needed to continue to improve housing for military families.

“What else do you need? Do we need to write something else into the authorization bill to give you more authority to address these ongoing issues?” Horn said. “I think we still have some unanswered questions.”

thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori 

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