Privatizing military barracks should not be seen as a silver bullet to slay all the problems that plague unaccompanied housing, but it could be the answer for some barracks at some installations, according to testimony at a recent congressional hearing.
Government Accountability Office auditors said the chronic neglect and underfunding of these living quarters — which has led to mold, overflowing sewage, doors that don’t lock, lack of heating and air conditioning, and other problems — could take years to fix.
That gloomy assessment for the House Armed Services quality of life panel left some lawmakers questioning whether the privatization of barracks could be an answer. But it’s not the first time they have asked.
At the direction of Congress in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, service and defense officials have been preparing a report on the feasibility of privatizing barracks. It was due to Congress in July.
Like privatized military family housing, this would involve entering into contracts with private companies to repair, renovate, construct and operate barracks. Based on testimony at the hearing, and the recent GAO report on the condition of barracks, it appears at least some of the services believe that privatization of barracks might work in some locations, but not all.
The Army and Navy, which already have a combined total of seven privatized barracks projects, are considering adding more, according to the GAO report.
The Army has privatized barracks at five locations, and is adding a sixth in the Miami area, where they’re planning a privatized housing community for both unaccompanied soldiers and military families assigned to the area. It will include 60 unaccompanied housing apartments and 75 family homes adjacent to U.S. Southern Command headquarters.
“We believe privatization will likely be feasible only at certain locations,” said Carla Coulson, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for installations, housing and partnerships, in written testimony to the panel. The Army is also evaluating the possibility of privatizing certain additional barracks projects
The Army’s five privatized barracks — at Fort Stewart, Georgia; Fort Liberty, North Carolina; Fort Drum, New York; Fort Meade, Maryland, and Fort Irwin, California — typically house more senior enlisted personnel and aren’t managed as permanent party barracks would be. For example, unit integrity is not maintained in these projects, Coulson stated.
The Navy’s two privatized unaccompanied housing projects are at Naval Station Norfolk and Naval Station San Diego.
There are pros and cons to privatized barracks, said Elizabeth Field, director of GAO’s defense capabilities and management division, in her testimony before the panel.
“We did tour some privatized barracks, particularly in San Diego, and I have to be honest, they were in amazing condition,” Field told lawmakers. “They were way ahead of some of the government-owned barracks.”
Some installations have been more successful with privatizing barracks for slightly more senior enlisted members, according to Field. So, it might make more sense for those in the E-4, E-5 and E-6 range.
But the problems military families have had with privatized housing aren’t lost on anyone. Over the past several years, Congress has enacted massive reforms in response to their bitter complaints over mold, sewage backups, pest infestations and more. Legislation required the Defense Department and military services to address a raft of tenant concerns and improve their oversight of privatized housing. Even so, GAO has found that DoD needs to continue to improve privatized military family housing.
“One of the things we’ve learned from this audit is, whether it’s government-owned or privatized, if you don’t pay attention, if you don’t fund, you’re going to end up with poor living conditions,” Field said. The problems with barracks are not much different from problems with privatized family housing, she said.
“The only real difference is that the Defense Department has felt more pressure in recent years to fix the problems in family housing than it has to fix the problems with barracks.”
Service officials have learned from their experiences with privatized family housing.
“I do just want to offer, as we talk about privatized housing and then the possibility of privatized barracks, that we’ve learned lessons about not disconnecting, and maintaining our oversight and accountability,” said Robert Thompson, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment. “I think we apply those today in the unaccompanied barracks. And I think the scale is a completely different issue as well.”
About 99% of military family housing has been privatized.
An option to consider
Privatizing barracks is “an option that should be explored,” Field said, adding that there are pros and cons.
For various reasons, privatization is not a “silver bullet” for barracks, she said. For starters, it’s a very different population. A barracks unit might be empty for months at a time when the service member goes on a deployment. Since privatized housing companies get most of their revenue from the service members’ Basic Allowance for Housing, occupancy rates are important to a project’s financial viability.
Housing more service members in privatized housing rather than government-owned barracks would cost the services more in BAH, because service members required to live in government-owned barracks are generally not eligible for BAH. At the same time, however, the costs of operating and maintaining the barracks would be borne by the housing company.
And there’s the issue of unit cohesion, especially for junior enlisted. Air Force and Marine Corps officials have expressed concerns about the negative effects of privatization on cohesion; neither of those services have privatized barracks.
Air Force officials told GAO auditors they also have concerns about whether privatized barracks would be cost effective at most Air Force installations. Defense officials have submitted a request to the Office of Management and Budget for consultation regarding a proposal for a privatized barracks project at one Air Force location. Service officials told GAO auditors that unique market conditions may make privatized unaccompanied housing workable at installations where there is limited housing supply off base and long commutes.
Marine Corps officials told the auditors they are conducting a study on the feasibility of privatized barracks at two bases, but don’t have any plans now to move forward on it.
According to the GAO report, auditors visited two installations with privatized barracks, observed living conditions, and met with service members living there. All the rooms met or exceeded DoD minimum standards for privacy and configuration and most included private bedrooms and bathrooms, living rooms and kitchens.
The seven privatized barracks projects were implemented between 1996 and 2013.
While privatization isn’t necessarily a panacea, “I do think that we have to use every possible tool available” to address the problem, said Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash.
A long-standing issue
The living conditions in barracks have been a persistent problem for decades. Field noted that GAO reported similar problems with barracks 20 years ago.
“Ten years ago, in a report to Congress, DoD lauded the progress it had made in modernizing its barracks program,” Field told lawmakers. “It stated that by increasing military construction funding, introducing new designs, offering more privacy and amenities and directing more maintenance funding to barracks, it had brought the modernization program closer to completion.
“The department also promised that military barracks would be adequately maintained over the long term,” she said. “Obviously, that didn’t happen.”
The 31 recommendations GAO made could put the Defense Department on better footing to address the problems, she said.
But if it doesn’t implement all the recommendations “in a meaningful and timely manner, I would encourage you to consider putting those recommendations into legislation to make them statutorily required,” she said.
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.