The construction area for a new $28.08 million barracks building is shown March 21, 2024, at Fort McCoy, Wis.

The construction area for a new $28.08 million barracks building is shown March 21, 2024, at Fort McCoy, Wis. (Scott T. Sturkol/U.S. Army)

House lawmakers sharply questioned the Pentagon’s commitment to fix substandard housing, contending poor living conditions undercut morale and readiness in the military.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., called the small number of military housing construction projects in the Navy budget “insanity” during a Thursday hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s subpanel on military construction, veterans affairs, and related agencies.

“The response with military family housing has been atrocious,” said Wasserman Schultz, the top Democrat on the subpanel.

Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., a former Navy officer, said Wednesday during a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subpanel that living in substandard housing was a major drawback to recruiting new troops and retaining them beyond their initial enlistment.

“This isn’t just a money, pay, salary issue, it’s quality of life at the base and in the barracks,” he said. “Having to live in squalor when your civilian counterparts aren’t.”

During hearings Wednesday and Thursday, the Army touted a significant increase in funding for military housing, while the Navy and Marine Corps faced criticism for cutbacks in spending for housing. A congressional hearing on the Air Force’s housing plan is scheduled for April 17.

A 2023 Government Accountability Office report found a lack of funding and management of military housing.

“[The Defense Department] does not provide sufficient oversight of housing programs for barracks, such as through appropriate guidance or direction to the military services on tracking, assessing, and remediating deficiencies in barracks conditions,” the GAO report said.

The Pentagon reported in February that it had $134 billion in deferred maintenance for all infrastructure, including housing, offices, and other base buildings.

The frustration from lawmakers and the findings of the GAO report echo yearslong efforts to improve living conditions on military bases following a 2019 Reuters news investigation that shocked Congress about the poor living conditions for some troops and their families.

Some military families have since testified before Congress about rodent and pest infestations, exposure to lead paint and other toxins, and water leaks that resulted in mold growth and damaged personal property. Some cases have led to lawsuits.

The military services have conceded they had relaxed oversight of the private companies that manage some housing on bases, and Congress mandated reforms.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said the service was tripling its funding request for barracks for unaccompanied enlisted soldiers.

“Readiness begins in the barracks, and the Army is dedicated to providing safe, high-quality housing and barracks for our soldiers,” she said.

Army spending includes:

⦁$935 million for nine new Army barracks, three times the amount approved in 2024.

⦁$680 million for sustaining existing Army barracks.

⦁$403.7 million to build 173 new Army family homes and renovate 252 others.

The Army’s proposed budget for fiscal 2025 is $185.9 billion, a 0.2% increase from the recently approved 2024 spending plan.

Meredith Berger, the assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations, and environment, said Thursday at the second House hearing that the Navy had been able to leverage funds from the 2024 budget into improvements in housing. But substandard housing has an impact on readiness.

“The majority of our infrastructure, whether barracks, utilities or public shipyards, is not in good shape,” she said. “As an institution, we have allowed these assets to degrade over time.”

Berger said funds spent on housing bolster quality-of-life issues, increasing the number of sailors and Marines who join the sea services or decide to reenlist.

Money spent on improving buildings, including housing, is a key to retention of service members that “returns infinitely more value to our warfighting force than the dollars it will cost,” she said.

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Edward Banta, deputy commandant for installations and logistics, said the service’s Barracks 2030 plan examines conditions at 658 barracks at Marine installations.

“Seventeen percent are not” up to standards, he said.

The 2025 budget will emphasize renovation, new furniture, upgrading Wi-Fi, and other amenities. Future budget requests will include larger construction requests. Fixing housing issues is a long-term issue, Banta said.

“We will not get out of this in one year,” he said.

The overall 2025 budget request for the Department of the Navy, which includes the Marine Corps, is for $257.6 billion, an increase 0.7% from the 2024. The request includes:

⦁$245 million for housing construction.

⦁$377 million to maintain and operate more than 3,500 government-owned family housing units, more than 62,000 privatized units, and 1,650 leased family units worldwide.

⦁Construction of 93 family housing units on Guam.

⦁Renovation of 64 family homes in Iwakuni, Japan.

⦁A policy change that no sailors will reside on ships when they are in port for maintenance.

Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, the chairman of the military construction, veterans affairs subpanel, suggested living space upgrades were crucial to service members and the committee might want to add more money to the 2025 budget for military housing.

“They invest their lives in the fight and we need to invest in their families,” he said.

Wasserman Schultz agreed.

“The good news is we get the last word,” she said. “Actually, the president gets the last word, he gets to sign it.”

author picture
Gary Warner covers the Pacific Northwest for Stars and Stripes. He’s reported from East Germany, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France and across the U.S. He has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

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