Three weeks ago, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Joint Subcommittee on Personnel & Readiness and Management Support brought the assistant secretaries responsible for military housing in the Department of Defense and the three Military Departments to Capitol Hill to answer for what many residents believe to be a sorry state of affairs. Also testifying at that hearing were three of five of the largest contractors for privatized military housing. One observer privately told me the spectacle was like “blood in the water.”
After that congressional feeding frenzy, senior leaders fanned out across the nation to inspect the situation for themselves. They ought not have had to do this, but it is good that they did, because Round Two is set for Thursday. The three service secretaries and the four senior military officers are scheduled to visit the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss “the chain of command’s accountability to provide safe military housing and other building infrastructure to servicemembers and their families.”
There are a lot of layers between the people processing work orders on individual housing units and the secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The fact that the situation deteriorated to the point where it required a congressional hearing to spur the services to action means that there were multiple failures at almost every level of leadership.
Reminiscent of a previous housing scandal
The situation reminds me of the debacle at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007. Then, lax oversight allowed conditions in some rooms in leased housing (an old hotel adjacent to the hospital) to deteriorate. Conditions similar to some of those described in the current housing crisis, like black mold, drew the attention of the press. Accountability flows up, so the brass had to own the debacle. The Army’s Surgeon General, Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley ultimately lost his job.
He didn’t do himself any favors by telling Congress, “I don’t do barracks inspections.” He didn’t, and the reason he didn’t is what doesn’t get discussed much, since it’s not fashionable to shine a light on the failures of lower-level supervisors. But years prior to the WRAMC issue, the Army’s non-commissioned officer corps had begged the officer corps to “stay out of the barracks.” That was “NCO business,” and they resented officers telling them how to do their jobs.
Leadership gave the sergeants what they wanted. The ultimate result was a senior sergeant—who should have been on top of the soldiers in the barracks to keep their rooms clean, and on his superiors to address maintenance issues—getting a royal ass-chewing from a certain four-star Army general for letting things get to the point where the Washington Post was publishing what ultimately became a Pulitzer-Prize winning exposé.
A similar thing seems to have happened with privatized housing.
Privatized housing actually improved the situation
The overwhelming majority of those living in military housing today have never known anything but privatized housing. And if the military’s leaders could say what they wanted, they’d tell them that they don’t know how good they’ve got it compared to what things were like 25 years ago.
Clearly, family housing has never been at the top of the military construction priority list. When the military first proposed the idea of turning its housing over to private developers in 1995, not only was there not enough on-post housing to meet demand, there was a $6.5 billion backlog in maintenance and improvement needs for existing houses — in the Army alone. The DoD’s website says that the problem had grown so bad that “the traditional approach to military construction” would have cost $25 billion and taken 20 years to fix.
Drawing on lessons learned by the Australian Army, which had privatized its own housing, Congress first authorized the Navy in 1995 to experiment with privatizing some of its housing units in Corpus Christi, TX. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1996, enacted in February 1996, formally established the Military Housing Privatization Initiative. In 2004, Congress removed the limit on the number of privatized units and made the program permanent.
Private companies hold 50-year leases on the houses they build and manage, and are responsible for all the maintenance. Service members living in privatized housing receive the same basic allowance for housing that those living off-post receive, and pay it to the housing company. (For the record, this arrangement never made any sense to me; why does the military not just send the money directly to the housing company? No one has ever adequately explained this to me).
But the fact that things are better now than they were before is still not good enough. I want to learn three things from Thursday’s hearing: 1) where do the contracting officer and contracting officer’s representatives (the people responsible for managing the money) work; 2) what mechanisms are in place to hold the contractors accountable for failure to comply with the terms; and, 3) what mechanisms are in place for local garrison commanders to report noncompliance to those officers?
For the Army specifically, I also want to know how the secretary and chief of staff expect the realignment of the Installation Management Command under the Army Materiel Command, effective last Friday, to affect the management and oversight of the privatization contracts.
Multiple leadership failures brought us to this point. We cannot afford any more.