Sailors attached to Naval Air Facility Atsugi in August 2021 unload bed frames to be placed inside an unaccompanied housing building at the installation as part of a building revitalization project.

Sailors attached to Naval Air Facility Atsugi in August 2021 unload bed frames to be placed inside an unaccompanied housing building at the installation as part of a building revitalization project. (Ange Olivier Clement/U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department would be compelled to assess the quality of overseas military barracks under a new House bill aimed at improving housing conditions for service members stationed around the world.

The legislation, introduced by two members of the House Armed Services Committee, seeks a comprehensive review of unaccompanied housing outside the U.S. and the establishment of uniform housing standards within the Defense Department.

“We need to know the size and scale of poor-quality U.S. military housing — both across the country and worldwide — so we can get the necessary resources and funding to fix it,” said Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., the bill’s co-sponsor.

Lawmakers said the bill is a response to a government watchdog study last year that found mold and mildew, sewage overflow, broken windows and locks, rodent infestations and other hazardous conditions across 31 military installations inside the United States.

The report also showed a lack of oversight by the Defense Department and a failure to establish department-wide health standards for unaccompanied housing facilities. Barracks outside the U.S. were notably absent from the investigation, said bill co-sponsor Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Va.

“Unfortunately, our own reporting, which shows serious deficiencies in domestic housing that pose health and safety risks to our service members, fails to oversee the standards of housing abroad,” Jacobs said.

The overseas barracks study would close that research gap, she said.

Military housing has dominated the conversation for the House Armed Services Committee in recent weeks as lawmakers prepare for the release of the Pentagon’s fiscal 2025 budget and begin work on the annual National Defense Authorization Act policy bill.

Top members of the committee sent a letter to President Joe Biden last week urging him to allocate extra resources to address quality-of-life issues, including housing, in the White House’s upcoming defense budget request.

Senior enlisted leaders told House lawmakers last month that poor compensation and housing, particularly for junior service members, topped the list of complaints from troops and are likely exacerbating ongoing struggles with recruitment.

The Defense Department has acknowledged its efforts to improve housing have not gone far enough. A department official earlier this month blamed the persistence of the problem on the sheer size of the military’s inventory, a growing backlog of deferred maintenance and ineffective management practices.

Another Pentagon official admitted no one had been fired as a result of last year’s investigation into unsafe living conditions in U.S. barracks.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks last week unveiled a new strategy to shrink the department’s massive infrastructure footprint and invest in a “smaller, higher-quality portfolio” of new buildings. She said the department faces a $134 billion maintenance backlog.

Funding for maintenance and upgrade work planned for fiscal 2024, which began Oct. 1, continues to be held up in Congress as lawmakers negotiate a dozen spending bills for the year. A partial government shutdown affecting spending for military construction will begin March 2 if there is no agreement.

Kiggans, a former Navy helicopter pilot, said the study that she is proposing will allow Congress to better target its spending going forward and direct funding toward raising living standards for troops.

“Our bipartisan bill will provide much-needed oversight and encourage the Department of Defense to house our men and women in uniform in the highest quality facilities, regardless of where they are serving,” she said.

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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