Defense officials say they are running into roadblocks in creating a publicly available database for complaints about military privatized housing units, as required by law.
The publicly available database would allow tenants of housing units to file a complaint about issues with their housing unit for inclusion in the database. Information is expected to include the name of the installation, the name of the landlord responsible for the housing unit, and a description of problem they are having. It won’t include personally identifiable information, but it would be available to anyone, including other military families, military leaders and privatized housing landlords.
The database requirement was one of the reforms enacted by Congress to address pervasive issues with mold, water intrusion, rodent and insect infestation and other problems brought to light by military families in 2019. In some cases, families had difficulty getting landlords to fix the problems, and their concerns weren’t being heard by their military leaders.
That complaint repository hasn’t been established, said DoD spokesman Peter Hughes. “Given budgetary, contract and Privacy Act issues, it will take time before the department is able to establish such a database,” he said.
In a Feb. 15 hearing on nominees for some key Pentagon positions, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pressed Christopher Lowman to get the database done in 2022. Lowman has been tapped for assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, the principal logistics official in DoD senior management.
“It’s a database, a complaint database. This is not rocket science,” Warren said, during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We’re in year three of people who want to be able to tell you about things like rats and insects and black mold,” she said. “I would think that the military would want to know about this.”
The database requirement was one of the reforms to the military housing privatization initiative that was included in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
Warren cited a Pentagon inspector general report that said DoD was dragging its feet on two major reforms — the public complaint database for tenants and the tenant bill of rights.
The senator pressed Lowman to make a commitment that DoD will stand up the complaint database this year, but he stopped short of making it. The responsibility for housing has been removed from the portfolio of duties of the position, he said.
In a Feb. 10 memo, the deputy secretary of defense re-created the position of assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment. It had been eliminated in 2018 DoD reorganization.
But Lowman did commit to working with the new assistant secretary for energy, installations and environment for a “deliberate transition of resources, as well as the policies and personnel, to make sure that … the organization makes progress on this.”
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks’ memo designated Paul Cramer, currently principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment, to serve as the interim assistant secretary until another person is designated or the president appoints someone to the position and the Senate confirms.
Five installations haven’t fully implemented the tenant bill of rights
That IG report Warren cited that addressed lagging results with the tenant bill of rights and the public complaint database was published in October 2021, based on findings through February 2021.
Defense officials issued a revised privatized housing tenant bill of rights on Aug. 1 that included all 18 of the rights required by law. By Sept. 30, the Army had joined the Navy and Marine Corps in implementing all 18 of the rights at all of their installations.
“With few exceptions, all 18 rights are fully available at all but five of the nearly 200 installations with privatized housing,” said Hughes, the DoD spokesman. But the department “continues to seek the voluntary agreement of the private-sector [privatized housing] companies to make all 18 rights available at all existing projects,” he said.
The five that haven’t yet implemented all the tenant bill of rights are:
♦ Hill Air Force Base, Utah
♦ Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska
♦ Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska
♦ Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio
♦ Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey
The Air Force is the lead agency for the two joint bases that haven’t yet implemented all the tenant rights.
At Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, Balfour Beatty Communities owns the Lakehurst-specific housing, and has agreed to implement all 18 of the rights, Hughes said. United Communities, owner of the housing at McGuire and Dix, “has conceptually agreed to provide all 18 rights on the remainder of the installation,” he said, “but because of legal issues related to Delaware state law and case law regarding tenant leases, is not yet providing the seven-year maintenance history, dispute resolution, or rent segregation” as set out in the DoD tenant bill of rights.
Those five bases have implemented at least 15 of the 18 rights and in some cases 16, Hughes said. “In all cases they are fully complying with the terms of the project legal agreements and state and local landlord tenant laws, including dispute resolution processes.”
Applying many of these rights at existing privatized housing projects “requires voluntary agreements by the private companies who own, operate and maintain the projects,” said Mark Kinkade, spokesman for the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center.
The dispute resolution process for tenants was among the most difficult of the rights for DoD and the services to negotiate with privatized housing landlords. Across the military, 14 provisions of the tenant bill of rights were implemented in June 2020, but the last four required more negotiations with the privatized housing companies.
The remaining four provisions included a dispute resolution process; a universal lease; a process for withholding rent during dispute resolutions; and providing a tenant with seven years of a unit’s maintenance history.
Capitol Hill Bureau Chief Leo Shane III contributed to this report.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.