Military members who live in base housing don’t always have it easy. There are many highly visible cases of military families complaining of substandard conditions in base housing, and issues like the Camp Lejeune water contamination scandal (see below) have only served to push the plight of those who suffer in substandard housing to the forefront of military affairs reporting.
In February 2020, the Department of Defense and the federal government acknowledged publicly that new standards were needed and that military tenants have certain rights which must be honored by those who provide and maintain military housing facilities. They did so by creating a document known as the Military Housing Privatization Initiative Tenant Bill of Rights.
The signatures for that bill of rights include Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper, and the military service secretaries (Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly, and Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett).
This Bill of Rights commits the Department of Defense to higher standards of housing and makes fair treatment for military renters a top priority.
A Short History Of Housing Privatization
At one time, the base housing situation was strictly under the jurisdiction of the federal government as administered on the local level by entities like a Base Housing Office.
But in the mid 1990s, housing privatization became a major issue for the Department of Defense. Privatized housing meant forging partnerships with entities in the local community who could take over administration and care of base housing.
Something called the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI) was started in the 90s after assessment of the overall military housing landscape. It was clear that base housing was at that time in need of upgrades.
According to many published sources, the military was not able to cover all such costs and in 1996 the National Defense Authorization Act included MHPI guidelines that allowed privatized military housing.
The Housing privatization approach allowed the Defense Department to hand off the maintenance and upkeep responsibilities of base housing to private partners. And since it was authorized to do so, the Defense Department has pursued and established housing partnerships with companies like Corvias, Balfour Beatty Communities, Hunt Military Communities, and Lincoln Military Housing.
But the road to privatization has been, as we will see, not been without problems.
What Is The Tenant Bill Of Rights?
This document identifies 18 rights of military service members and their families who live in privatized military housing. We don’t use the term “base housing” here as some installations have housing options run as privatized partnerships, but where the actual living units are located off-base.
“Base housing” is a catchall in this article for any privatized housing agreement that allows military members to live in a house or apartment operated by the privatized housing company.
The goal of the bill of rights is to ensure quality living conditions, and fair treatment from the private partners operating base housing.
What Rights Are Protected?
The Tenant Bill Of Rights covers issues including, but not limited to, the following areas:
- The right to live in housing that meets health and environmental standards
- The right to live in base housing that has working fixtures, appliances, and utilities
- The right to live in a community with maintained common areas
- The right to a written lease with clearly defined rental terms
- The right to a plain-language briefing, before signing a lease and 30 days after move-in, by the installation housing office on all rights and responsibilities associated with tenancy of the housing unit
- The right to have “sufficient time and opportunity” to prepare and be present for move-in and move-out inspections
- The right to report inadequate housing standards to the Landlord, the chain of command, and housing management office without fear of reprisal or retaliation
- The right of access to a Military Tenant Advocate or a military legal assistance attorney
- The right to property management services provided by a Landlord that meet or exceed industry standards
- The right to not pay non-refundable fees or have application of rent credits arbitrarily held
Why The Tenant Bill Of Rights Was Needed
Military housing scandals are plentiful. A quick Google search reveals plenty to explain why the Military Housing Privatization Initiative Tenant Bill Of Rights was needed; some critics say this move is long overdue. Are they correct?
A Short Review Of Military Housing Scandals
This list is in no way comprehensive. It merely notes when and where certain military housing issues have come to light in the press. Did we need a military housing bill of rights? Read below and you be the judge:
- An April 11, 2019 article by Reuters includes a quote from an Army spouse complaining that, “No one can tell me who these companies answer to,” in reference to directing a complaint about mold-infested military housing at Fort Polk, Louisiana where the family’s children “developed respiratory illnesses while residing in a mold-infested home.”
- That same Reuters article includes mention of five families at U.S. Army Fort Meade in Maryland, who were “removed from homes with mold, dilapidated roofs or other problems.” The article goes on to add that Army leadership had to “pressure” its privatized housing partner, Corvias, into repairing homes and testing air quality at Fort Meade’s roughly three thousand homes.
- The website Change.org has an active (at the time of this writing) petition seeking redress at Fort Bragg, North Carolina from Corvias. That petition includes the following: “The Residents of Fort Bragg have finally had enough of our housing company, Corvias. For too long they have neglected their duties as our property managers,” and includes allegations of mold-filled base housing, unrepaired damage from Hurricane Florence, gas leaks, and residents being moved into “dirty houses that were never cleaned.”
And then there’s the Camp Lejeune problem.
Over Three Decades Of Contaminated Water At Camp Lejeune, South Carolina
The issue related to contaminated tap water at Camp Lejeune remains one of the darkest episodes of Marine Corps history associated with proper care of troops and their families, military quality of life, Marine Corps retention, and transparency in military leadership.
There are other similar incidents at other bases that may have equal significance. The Camp Lejeune water contamination scandal seems to be among the longest running and most publicly visible examples of how the system breaks down and who gets hurt when it does.
The water contamination problem at Camp Lejeune, South Carolina is one of the most damning incidents associated with base housing issues. For literal decades, between 1953 and 1987, those living and working at the South Carolina U.S. Marine Corps base were exposed to tap water contaminated with harmful chemicals at concentrations as high as 3400 times the amount permitted under safety standards.
A number of former base residents developed cancers or other medical problems presumptively associated with the contamination problem at the U.S. Marine Corps base. But some fixes would have to wait until 2009 for significant federal action to be taken to deal with these allegations. Some published reports note that as late as 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the water contamination problem at Lejeune increased the risk for those exposed; an elevated risk of diseases such as cancer, ALS, and others.
The Necessity For Clean, Safe Base Housing
Military members have a variety of perks offered to them including the ability to live on base in government-provided housing. From the time a new recruit enters basic training, they are housed on-base for boot camp and any required technical school or MOS training that must follow. In a training environment, troops are housed in barracks when not in field training exercise mode.
Once new troops arrive at their first duty assignment, they may or may not be required to stay in military housing depending on the nature of their duty, whether or not they have a spouse and/or dependents, etc.
Married military members are eligible to apply for on-base housing. Single troops may be required to stay in the barracks until they reach a certain time in grade or time in service.
In some cases, a high-cost market like California or New York would provide strong incentives for military families (especially the many, many junior enlisted families who struggle with those early paychecks in the first stages of a military career) to seek on-base housing instead of trying to compete in a crowded and expensive market.
To say that people don’t have a choice with base housing is not always accurate, but for many, the base housing option is the only one they have. For example, junior troops E-5 and below who are not married are often required to live in the barracks depending on the command, the assignment, and other variables.
And some just cannot afford any other option with their current level of military pay, as shameful a situation as that may be for someone in uniform to face. Housing privatization may have been a benefit for the DoD, but the tenant bill of rights is a much overdue victory for those who must reside on base.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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