October 02, 2020

Warner, Kaine, Feinstein Request DoD Update on Implementation of Outstanding Military Housing Reforms

~ Five months have passed since the DoD’s stated timeline, and only 14 of 18 tenants’ rights have been implemented ~

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) requested an update from the Department of Defense (DoD) on the implementation of reforms to the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI) – reforms the Senators were able to help secure in the FY20 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in response to pervasive and appalling health, safety and environmental hazards in private military housing. 

“From the inception of the Military Housing Privatization Initiative in 1996, the Department of Defense and frankly, Congress, placed far too much trust in the private companies implementing the program. The agreements made, including 50-year leases between these companies and the military services, stacked the deck against servicemembers and their families,” wrote the Senators. “The companies frequently failed to properly address hazards and to meet their fundamental obligations to servicemembers and their families to provide safe, healthy and high-quality housing. The Department of Defense also did not conduct sufficient oversight of the housing within their purview, and dismissed legitimate and pervasive concerns of servicemembers and their family members regarding their housing.” 

They continued, “For this reason, we introduced the Ensuring Safe Housing for Our Military Act (S.703) to begin reforming the privatized housing program, ensuring that our servicemembers have safe, healthy and high-quality housing. The FY20 NDAA included many provisions from this bill and put into place comprehensive reforms to right the program’s wrongs. Now the Department of Defense, with oversight by Congress, must see these reforms through.”

The Department of Defense released a Tenant Bill of Rights on February 25, 2020, as required by the NDAA FY20 and committed to making 15 of the 18 required rights available to military servicemembers and their families by May 1, 2020. According to DoD however, additional work remained in order to negotiate and implement the three remaining rights: a process for dispute resolution, a mechanism for the withholding of Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) payments when disputes arise between the companies and the tenants, and a means by which to make a housing unit’s maintenance history accessible to tenants.  

On June 1st – one month after its timeline – DoD indicated that only 14 of the 18 rights had been implemented. According to DoD, the three original unresolved rights remained outstanding, in addition to a fourth – the use of uniform forms and documents, including a standard lease across MHPI projects. 

In their letter to Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper, Sens. Warner, Kaine, and Feinstein specifically asked for an update on the four tenants’ rights that have yet to be implemented – the withholding of the BAH, a dispute resolution mechanism, work history records and a standard lease. They also requested information on the progress of other NDAA provisions intended to further reform the privatized military housing program. Particularly, they inquired about the status of the following NDAA requirements, pulled from the Senators’ Ensuring Safe Housing for Our Military Act

  • The establishment of a standard for minimum credentials for health and environmental inspectors of privatized military housing;
  • The approval of mold mitigation and pest control plans by installation commanders;
  • The withholding of incentives fees if landlords have not met established guidelines and procedures, and whether this authority has been invoked since the FY20 NDAA’s passage;
  • Landlords payments for reasonable relocation costs in the event of health, safety or environmental hazards; and
  • The prohibition on landlords imposing supplemental payments, in addition to rent, on tenants.

Noting the Pentagon’s lack of expertise in matters of housing, the Senators also urged DoD to consider convening a temporary housing advisory group of independent experts to offer sound counsel. They suggested that this expertise could help supplement the Councils on Privatized Military Housing that were required in NDAA to ensure adequate tenant protections.

In May 2019, the Senators introduced legislation to make much-needed reforms to privatized military housing, following reports of health hazards in military homes across the country. They successfully secured large portions of this legislation in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed in December 2019. Since then, Sen. Warner has kept up the fight to get these reforms implemented quickly. He introduced an amendment to the FY21 National Defense Authorization Act, which was included in the Senate approved bill. Sen. Warner’s provision in the defense bill requires that the military services review the indicators underlying the privatized housing project performance metrics to ensure they adequately measure the condition and quality of the home. Additionally, the provision requires the Secretary of Defense to publish in DoD’s Military Housing Privatization Initiative Performance Evaluation Report underlying performance metrics for each project, in order for Congress to provide effective oversight.

Earlier this year, Sen. Warner issued a statement once again calling for the implementation of his military housing reforms, following a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study that found deficiencies in the DoD’s oversight of privatized military housing. That study issued a series of recommendations, including ones suggesting that DoD take steps to better track maintenance data and to improve communication with servicemembers and their families – measures that the Senators successfully worked to pass into law.  

Letter text is available here and below. 

Dear Secretary Esper: 

We are writing to request an update on the implementation of reforms for the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI), as included in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, signed into law on December 20, 2019. These reforms addressed appalling conditions in privatized military housing, including health, safety and environmental hazards by increasing accountability and oversight of the private companies operating the MHPI program. 

We strongly believe that Congress and the Department of Defense must exercise strong oversight over the Military Housing Privatization Initiative, the companies entrusted with housing, and the status of ongoing reforms required by Congress. Absent implementation of new oversight and accountability requirements, as outlined in the FY20 NDAA, and continued pressure, we worry that the tenuous progress achieved in improving privatized military housing could stagnate or even be reversed over time.

From the inception of the Military Housing Privatization Initiative in 1996, the Department of Defense and frankly, Congress, placed far too much trust in the private companies implementing the program. The agreements made, including 50-year leases between these companies and the military services, stacked the deck against servicemembers and their families. The companies frequently failed to properly address hazards and to meet their fundamental obligations to servicemembers and their families to provide safe, healthy and high-quality housing. The Department of Defense also did not conduct sufficient oversight of the housing within their purview, and dismissed legitimate and pervasive concerns of servicemembers and their family members regarding their housing.

For this reason, we introduced the Ensuring Safe Housing for Our Military Act (S.703) to begin reforming the privatized housing program, ensuring that our servicemembers have safe, healthy and high-quality housing. The FY20 NDAA included many provisions from this bill and put into place comprehensive reforms to right the program’s wrongs. Now the Department of Defense, with oversight by Congress, must see these reforms through. 

On February 25, 2020, the Department of Defense released a Tenant Bill of Rights, as required by the FY20 NDAA, and committed to making 15 of the 18 rights required by the NDAA available to military servicemembers and their families by May 1, 2020 . However, DoD noted that additional work was needed to negotiate with the MHPI companies to implement the three remaining rights. These included: a process for dispute resolution, a mechanism for the withholding of Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) payments when disputes arise between the companies and the tenants, and a means by which to make a housing unit’s maintenance history accessible to tenants. 

On June 1, 2020, the Department of Defense’s Chief Housing Officer, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment, W. Jordan Gillis, stated that only 14 of the rights had largely been implemented, and that work still remained on implementing the 15th right – the use of uniform forms and documents, including a standard lease across MHPI projects . Negotiations with the MHPI companies related to the withholding of BAH, dispute resolution and work history records were still ongoing. 

We write to request an update on the status of the four rights that have not been implemented: the withholding of the BAH, a dispute resolution mechanism, work history records and a standard lease. We also are seeking information on the progress of other provisions in the FY20 NDAA that were intended to further reform the privatized military housing program. In particular, we are interested in the status of the following requirements that were pulled from our legislation, the Ensuring Safe Housing for Our Military Act (S.703), and were subsequently included in the FY20 NDAA:

  • the establishment of a standard for minimum credentials for health and environmental inspectors of privatized military housing;
  • the approval of mold mitigation and pest control plans by installation commanders;
  • the withholding of incentives fees if landlords have not met established guidelines and procedures, and whether this authority has been invoked since the FY20 NDAA’s passage;
  • whether landlords are now paying reasonable relocation costs in the event of health, safety or environmental hazards; and
  • the prohibition on landlords imposing supplemental payments, in addition to rent, on tenants.

Finally, as negotiations continue with the private companies over the implementation of these remaining rights, we urge you to consider convening a temporary housing advisory group of independent experts to offer you sound counsel. Expertise from both within and outside of the DoD could supplement the Councils on Privatized Military Housing that were required by the FY20 NDAA, to ensure adequate protections for tenants. Multiple perspectives and deep expertise in housing, state and local housing regulations, and environmental hazards are necessary to make stronger agreements. Clearly, these areas are not the core expertise of Pentagon leadership, nor are they part of a military leader’s career trajectory. The Department of Defense has a long history of using advisory groups to provide independent and informed advice, such as the Defense Innovation Board, Defense Science Board, Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, and the Military Family Readiness Council.

Thank you for your attention to this serious matter. We look forward to a response, either in writing or through a brief.

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