$301M plan proposed for military housing reform

MILITARY HOUSING: The current home of a military family that had to leave their on-base housing due to mold infestation is pictured in the Del Mar housing district at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Sept. 26, 2018. Mike Blake/Reuters

WASHINGTON – The Senate Armed Services Committee has proposed $301 million in new funding to enhance housing safety and oversight on U.S. military bases, following Reuters reports documenting squalid conditions in privately run military homes, senior committee staff said Thursday.

The funding recommendations, along with dozens of new provisions aimed at improving base housing for thousands of service families, are included in the bipartisan committee markup of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the military budget proposal, which will now be sent to the full U.S. Senate.

Among the measures, military families would get a new tenant bill of rights, allowing them to withhold rent from derelict landlords, and base homes would receive far more frequent inspections.

Military branches would be required to hire new housing staff and tenant advocates, and hold private real estate contractors accountable for maintenance lapses.

The Defense Department would bolster protections against lead, mold and other toxins.

And the military would renegotiate its 50-year contracts with the private real estate developers and property managers who control some 200,000 privatized base homes.

Altogether, the bill includes more than $301 million in new funding for enhanced safety and better service in military housing, two senior committee staffers told Reuters. The precise bill language hasn't been released publicly.

"Military families deserve safe, high-quality housing commensurate with the sacrifices they make every day," Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican on the committee, tweeted Thursday.

The new funding and proposed changes follow a yearlong Reuters series, Ambushed at Home, which triggered Congressional hearings where lawmakers lambasted private real estate contractors and Defense Department officials for subjecting some families to slum-like conditions.

For years, service members had little recourse as their children and spouses were sickened or suffered developmental delays from deteriorating lead paint, rampant mold and pest infestations. Over the 20-year-old privatization program, military branches had increasingly yielded responsibility to their private industry partners, who stand to earn billions in fees.

More than a dozen U.S. lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have introduced bills to hold contractors and the military accountable. Many of the provisions from those bills are now included in the committee markup budget.

"This is a bill that does a tremendous amount to deal with the (housing) scandal," Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said Thursday. Private operators, he said, "felt like we've got a captive audience with these poor schlubs from the military, and we don't have to do anything for them."

The new bill, he said, will "hold the military responsible for this."

Kaine proposed rules that would require military branches or private contractors to complete a robust "move-out checklist" and new home inspections when families transition out of homes, a measure he said could stop the practice of contractors saddling families with inappropriate fees.

In the coming weeks, the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, controlled by Democrats, will release its own version of the National Defense Authorization Act. The House version must be reconciled with the version in the Republican-controlled Senate before the bill can be passed.

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