Military needs more public-private partnerships to improve housing, lawmakers say
Stars and Stripes February 7, 2024
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers said Wednesday that they wanted to see more public-private partnerships in military housing to address poor living conditions and allow service members to focus on warfighting rather than maintaining aging barracks.
Members of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subpanel suggested such changes could help fix a military housing system that continues to grapple with mold, cockroach and rodent infestations, sewage overflow, broken air conditioning and other issues.
Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., the chairman of the panel, said he was put off by conversations with service leaders that discussed how Marines, for example, could be better trained to oversee heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
“I want those Marines better trained to do bad things to bad people and not managing buildings,” Waltz, a former Green Beret, said Wednesday during a hearing on military infrastructure. “We have entities in the United States of America that can do this incredibly well.”
The Army intends to lead the way in lessening the burden on service members by creating a “robust workforce” of trained civilian barracks managers, according to Rachel Jacobson, the service’s assistant secretary for installations, energy and environment.
“We will no longer ask soldiers to perform these functions as a collateral duty,” she told lawmakers.
The Army is also hoping to use a pilot project for privatized junior enlisted housing at Fort Irwin in California as a blueprint for barrack privatization. Privatized barracks in the Army are now mostly limited to older enlisted personnel.
Meanwhile, the Navy is building on its ongoing privatization efforts with a pilot housing program for unaccompanied sailors in San Diego and Norfolk, Va., said Meredith Berger, the service’s assistant secretary for installations, energy and environment.
Lawmakers said public-private partnerships are key for remedying systemic problems in military housing that have left living quarters chronically neglected and underfunded, particularly for junior troops.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said Congress needs to give more authority to the military to pursue contracts with private companies to repair, renovate, construct and operate barracks.
“We can make it happen,” he said. “Right now there’s limitations on what each of the departments can do. We need to tell them to get on with it in the next [National Defense Authorization Act].”
But, Garamendi cautioned, the services must be equipped to avoid the highly publicized problems that have plagued privatized military family housing in recent years. Congress has had to enact a slew of reforms to address mold, asbestos, sewage backups and other issues at homes owned by private companies.
The military began turning to the private sector to provide housing services in the 1990s as its own housing stock aged and became unfit for residency.
The Defense Department continues to pour investments into its housing and installations but a significant gap persists between expected standards and the reality on the ground, said Brendan Owens, the assistant secretary of defense for installations, energy and environment.
“The [Defense Department] has in too many instances failed to live up to our role in making sure the housing we provide honors the commitment of the service members and their families and enables them to bring their best versions of themselves to their critical missions,” he said.
Jacobson, the Army official, said a combination of factors have contributed to substandard living conditions, including the sheer size of the military’s inventory, a growing backlog of deferred maintenance and ineffective management practices.
Pressure to improve barracks has grown since a government watchdog report last year revealed squalor in rank-and-file base housing. Owens said the Pentagon anticipates implementing 28 of the report’s 31 recommendations this year and has assembled a team to determine habitability standards.
Owens told lawmakers that he was not aware of anyone who was fired in response to the findings in the report.
Waltz said the lack of accountability was “unacceptable” and a critical part of why service members are forced to live with mold, feces, broken sewage lines and other unsafe conditions.
“I don’t think anybody on this committee or any of you are expecting our service members live in the Taj Mahal, I don’t think that’s their expectation,” he said. “But this is disgusting, this is unsatisfactory.”