Rep. Speier on Army's housing deal: 'I would terminate that contract'
By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 6, 2021
FORT HOOD, Texas — Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., pledged Thursday to question Defense Department officials about terminating military housing contracts, calling the agreements “poorly crafted” and providing commanders little say in how private companies spend money to improve and maintain homes.
“They have a guaranteed income from the [military’s basic allowance for housing] that they receive from each service member," said Speier, who is the chairwoman of the House Armed Services Committee subpanel on military personnel. "The accountability for fixing sewage problems, leaky roofs [and] mold is really, I think, abysmal. So, if I had my druthers right now, I would terminate that contract."
“I want to get their attention,” she said standing alongside four other House lawmakers after the group spent two days touring Fort Hood.
In their second visit in eight months, the congressional delegation came to hear about improvements made at the central Texas Army base since the disappearance and death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen sparked a series of investigations and reforms in the service.
Lendlease, the private company that manages housing at Fort Hood, said it was surprised and disappointed by Speier’s comments.
“The Army decides how investments are spent both across and within its installations,” company spokeswoman Stefanie Murphy said in a statement. “Furthermore, Lendlease has attempted to meet with Rep. Speier on multiple occasions. Not only did we publicly invite Rep. Speier to come visit us during our presentation at the House Armed Services subcommittees in March, we have been in touch with her office on eight separate occasions – both over the phone and via email – requesting time on her agenda during her visit to Fort Hood this week, and we were told she was unavailable. We remain willing to meet with her and have again reached out to her office to facilitate a discussion.”
The congressional delegation included Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the subpanel, Chrissy Houlahan, D-Penn., Marc Veasey, D-Texas, Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., and Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas. All of them except Garcia are members of the House Armed Services Committee. Banks did not participate in Thursday’s news conference.
While all the lawmakers commended the progress made to improve the climate and culture on the base in regard to sexual assault and harassment and gender and race discrimination, they did say the homes and barracks they toured troubled them.
The partnership between Lendlease and Fort Hood was one of the first forged after the military began privatizing base housing in 1996. Most partnerships involve a 50-year agreement that charges the company with maintaining and updating homes for military families in exchange for a service member’s basic allowance for housing. Lendlease manages about 5,600 homes at Fort Hood.
“We are partners with the Army and work cooperatively and collaboratively to manage the housing,” Murphy said. “While we handle the day-to-day management, our military partners have oversight of all our operations and have major decision rights under the respective agreements, including how and where this private financing, sourced from private investors, is spent.”
The vast majority of military homes in the United States are managed by private partnerships, and the military and the companies have conceded during congressional hearings that, over time, they have neglected oversight.
Lendlease recently announced a $1.1 billion funding surge to improve 12,000 existing on-base family residences and build about 1,200 new homes at Fort Hood and four others. Lt. Gen. Doug Gabram, commander of Army Installation Command, visited Fort Hood last week to see progress in demolishing old homes to begin construction and he’s proud of the progress made.
“Do we need to keep going? Do we still need to get better? Every day. Do we have gaps and seams with over 5,000 homes here at Fort Hood? Absolutely,” he said. “We continue to have challenges, but we're moving forward. When you have a team, when you have collaboration, when you can have relationships, we can solve problems.”
Phillip Carpenter, chief operating officer of Lendlease, visited Fort Hood alongside Gabram and he said he encourages any family with concerns about housing to contact the company as soon as possible.
“We're working as a partnership to make sure every home is safe and habitable for every family that moves in with us,” he said. “I've been taking care of Army families for almost 40 years now, and that's what I live and breathe for and I make sure our teams have that commitment as well.”
But Speier and her colleagues said the investment was not promising and it’s not enough.
“People shouldn't have to live with mold and termites,” Veasey said. “Some of the conditions that we saw yesterday and some of the maladies that have resulted because of those conditions, some of those people could be dealing with chronic issues, health issues for the rest of their lives because of this. And that just shouldn't be the case, not for people that are serving our country admirably. It shouldn't be an issue.”
Concerns in military family housing exploded about two years after a series of news reports exposed the sometimes dangerous conditions that residents face, including lead paint, mold from water leaks and pest and rodent infestations. Poor customer service and slow response to maintenance requests exacerbated problems.
Since then, Congress and military officials have intervened to increase oversight and better define expectations through a tenant bill of rights. Companies have also made efforts to improve conditions and increase communication with residents.
“We met with families who are living on base who continue to have problems,” Speier said. “We talked to soldiers who continue to put in work orders and do not get them addressed. We have an obligation to these soldiers and their families to give them quality housing and we are going to take steps to make sure that happens.”
A report from the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee in December recommended further review of housing at the base, noting it came up during their investigation, but it was outside the scope of the committee’s work.
Lt. Gen. Pat White, commander of Fort Hood, said last month that he was open to an investigation into housing on base and the congressional delegation would get a look.
“It's all out there. I'm not hiding it,” he said. “I’ll show the maintenance histories and everything. What are you going to do about it? That requires more money. … I'm no different than Fort Polk or Fort Irwin. Everybody kind of needs that same thing out of the partners.”
Lawmakers made their first visit to Fort Hood in September after announcing an investigation into the deaths last year of soldiers at the base. A joint review between the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s subpanel on national security and the House Committee on Armed Services’ subpanel on military personnel aims to determine whether a string of tragic deaths last year might be symptomatic of underlying leadership, discipline or morale deficiencies.
In total, 35 soldiers died at the base in 2020. Twelve of those soldiers died by suicide, 14 died in accidents and five died by homicide, according to Fort Hood. One soldier died in combat overseas. About 37,000 soldiers are assigned to the base.
The congressional report is expected out by the end of the year, according to a committee aide.
“Fort Hood has been placed under a microscope. But I don't know that they are an outlier. I am concerned that we have similar issues at installations around the country. And this committee will continue to do its oversight responsibilities and evaluate these installations one by one,” Speier said. “The one thing I do know is that Fort Hood could become the spotlight, the role model for installations around the country as to how to fix these problems.”
Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, participated in a visit to Fort Hood, Texas, on Thursday as part of a congressional investigation into the culture and command climate for soldiers stationed there. Spc. Vanessa Guillen, whose death initiated several reforms through the Army, resided in her congressional district.
ROSE L. THAYER/STARS AND STRIPES