Virginian Pilot Editorial Board: Room for improvement in military housing

THE VIRGINIAN PILOT

It’s unacceptable for military families to be living in substandard housing, battling mold, lead, rats and other problems that range from inconveniences to serious threats to health and safety.

It’s inexcusable to subject those who volunteer to serve and their families to such conditions in military housing. And, according to the results of a new national survey arranged by the Navy, the problems are worse here in Hampton Roads that just about anywhere else.

The survey, by CEL & Associates, found housing in Hampton Roads handled by the private contractor Lincoln Military Housing ranked among the worst — 40th out of 42 installations, with residents giving their housing here an overall score of 61, or “poor.” That’s a significant drop from the results of a similar survey the year before, when naval base housing across Hampton Roads scored an overall 77 for satisfaction.

The Navy arranged to have the survey taken in the spring, after widespread evidence emerged in studies, congressional hearings and news coverage of serious problems in privatized military housing.

Poor housing conditions aren’t just a Navy problem. It’s an issue each branch of the military must review and address.

Here in Hampton Roads, news stories had detailed the problems some families were having, including lack of maintenance and repairs, recurring mold that caused health problems, and failure of the contractors to respond to complaints.

Past surveys had been conducted by the contractors who manage the privatized housing, making critics wonder whether residents felt pressured to give favorable responses.

The results of the latest survey, coming on top of mounting evidence of substandard housing, strongly suggest that the military’s move to privatize its housing management hasn’t gone as well as expected. Back in 1996, when Congress authorized the Defense Department to enter into long-term contracts with private contractors to manage, repair, maintain and renovate base housing, the thinking was that professional real-estate management companies would do a better job.

The reality has been that for a variety of reasons, that often isn’t the case. Some of the fault probably lies in Washington, including shifts in the size of the military and in the basic housing allowance allotted for military members. Some of the fault lies with the contractors.

In any case, most of the lease arrangements between the military and the contractors are for 50 years, making change difficult.

The important thing is that military families deserve better. This country must do better by the men and women who voluntarily do whatever their country asks, including putting their lives on the line, to protect us. Inadequate housing stifles efforts to recruit future generations of service members.

Arguing about blame is a lot less important than fixing the problems.

The Navy has announced some changes, including hiring more people to oversee privatized housing. Housing providers are required to develop corrective action plans for areas that scored 75 or below.

And Lincoln, the housing contractor, says it’s making improvements such as adding staff and making it easier for residents to report problems. Lincoln handles about 4,400 housing units in Hampton Roads, including many near Naval Station Norfolk, Naval Station Oceana and Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek.

Some of Virginia’s members of Congress are rightly trying to do more. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and Reps. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger have been working to make sure that some reforms proposed in the annual defense authorization bill before Congress make it into the final legislation.

Among those changes are a tenants’ “bill of rights” for service members and provisions to withhold housing payments to contractors until they resolve disputes with residents. It would make the contractors pay expenses if residents have to move because of hazards in their home.

These are other provisions are sensible changes that shouldn’t be lost in the negotiations to get the defense bill passed.

Being in the military is challenging enough, for the men and women who serve, and also for their families. Especially for younger service members at lower pay grades, military housing may be the only affordable option.

That housing ought to be safe, reliable and decent, a refuge for those who sacrifice to keep us safe.

 

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