The poor conditions of privately managed military housing are affecting military readiness

Elizabeth Howe
February 13, 2019 - 1:38 pm

Photo courtesy of DVIDS

"There were issues ranging from black mold to rat infestations. One family reported a colony of hundreds of bats living in the attic. There was radon, faulty wiring, bad foundations, chronic flooding," said Alex Horton, author of the Washington Post article, 'Black mold, rats and lead: Survey of military families paints slum-like picture of housing on U.S. bases.' These issues — which seem to be stemming from the privatization of military base housing management — affect thousands of military families and, as a result, military readiness. 

Privatized management of military housing started back in 1996 when a Pentagon report to Congress showed that federally run houses and homes on military bases were in hazardously poor condition. Private companies were contracted to take over the repair, remodel, and management of those houses — in exchange for a 50-year lease.

"They reaped a lot of profits," Horton said. "They earned billions every year. There are 15 big companies that run bases in 47 states. It's a big deal. It's a big business for these folks. But there's an increasing concern that that private model of running these homes has prioritized money and profits over quality and safety."

Those concerns were confirmed by a recent Military Family Advisory Network survey. 

"They got a vociferous and very motivated response from about 16,000 families. They even shrank it down — made sure people were living in these homes in the last three years and that they were managed by these companies. What they found is more than half had a negative or very negative view of their living conditions at these privately managed homes." 

From mold to rats to radon, military families reported hazardous living conditions. Reported issues were not fixed in a timely manner. And many issues went unreported for fear of retribution. 

"They ran into challenges with base commanders and with these companies themselves when they tried to get emergency solutions or fixes...Some of them reported that they faced retribution from companies or they were threatened that commanders would be informed if they raised a stink," Horton said. 

Between concerns about blowback from the chain of command, the limited housing options near certain installations, and financial situations, these military families felt backed into a corner.

"A lot of these families were saying that they had bad conditions, but they don't have the same kinds of recourse that are available to people in the civilian community," Horton said. "They had trouble withholding rent. They had trouble going to the top to find a solution. And, judging from the survey responses, they've been waiting a long time to tell their side of the story."

Horton heard some of these stories directly from the military families experiencing them. 

Amie Norquist from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fl. lived in a hotel room for two months with her husband and four children as the property manager, Harbor Bay sanded through the mold covering the family's air ducts — without first covering the family's belongings. After moving back in her husband started using an inhaler despite having no history of asthma, and one daughter developed a chronic inflammatory response syndrome caused by a water-damaged home. 

Heather Beckstrom believes her daughter's epilepsy, her son's cancer, and her other son's cleft palate are a result of the untreated sewer water her family was repeatedly exposed to in their house on Fort Bragg. 

And these are just two of 8,000 military families who reported significant issues with privately managed on-base housing. 

"Talking to these families, you get a sense that...once they start PCSing and they move to different bases and encounter different companies, they understand that this is just another reality of military life," Horton said. "There's almost a broad acceptance that this is the way it is and it's just a reality that can't be changed."

But, as these problems begin to affect military readiness, it's becoming more and more obvious that things do need to change. Norquist's husband was unable to deploy due to the housing issues the family faced. Then, when he was diagnosed with asthma, he became undeployable. 

"So in a micro-way it's affecting individuals from being able to deploy. It's affecting that, at least, on the ground," Horton said. "On the macro-level, this is something that is distracting for the Pentagon. For base commanders who have to step in and intervene and expend capital. For service members that need to strip away all other difficulties and challenges at home and focus on the mission. Now they can't." 

Whether the survey results will be enough to inspire change within this private model has yet to be seen. 

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