Defense Bill Provides New Rights For Families In Private Military Housing
Friday, December 20, 2019
Photo by Matthew Bowler
More than a year after widespread complaints of mold, mice and other issues became public, the military is still struggling to improve conditions in private military housing. The new defense budget includes language to put more power in the hands of tenants and local commanders.
Hope Guinn Bradley lives in military housing in San Diego. Her husband is in the Navy. She’s become an unofficial spokeswoman for other residents in privately-run military housing, including for the residents in Murphy Canyon, where the main issue is mold.
“For some of these families, this is the first time they have lived away from home,” Bradley said. “This is the first time they have rented a home and been responsible for the things that happen within that home. And they just simply don’t have the knowledge.”
More than a year ago, families began going public with concerns about conditions in private military housing. But those problems persist. In San Diego County, Marine families have reported mice infestations inside their homes at Camp Pendleton. Navy and Marine families complain about the slow response-time from private maintenance contractors.
“That’s the thing, we’re not asking for anything outlandish. We just want homes that don’t make our children sick,” Bradley said.
Tenants complained in Murphy Canyon about mold collecting in their ductwork. Lincoln Military Housing has the contract to run housing at Murphy Canyon and most of the other privately run facilities in San Diego County. Bradley showed where a contractor taped blue plastic over all the vents in one home. The family hasn’t been told when the contractor will be back, Bradley said.
The Navy needs to do a better job of managing the private contractor, she said.
“I feel like enough of us are saying: Hey guys, this is not OK,” she said. “Hey guys, they’re not doing what they are supposed to be doing for our families. Hey guys, we need some help from somebody who can make things happen.”
The Navy, like each of the service branches, vowed to get more involved after widespread complaints of substandard conditions made their way to Congress last year. But in San Diego alone, the Navy found they had little leverage to force changes under their contract with Lincoln Military Housing.
“Right now it’s advocacy if there’s a problem,” said Capt. Mark Nieswiadomy, commander of Naval Base San Diego.
He arrived in September. Congress had already held hearings about substandard conditions nationwide. Nieswiadomy said he has inspected some of the homes to get a sense of their condition. He also works with the contractor on behalf of the families for the 4,000 units of private military housing under his command.
“If you’re not finding satisfaction or resolution, bring it up to Navy housing,” he said. “We have a housing office here on base. If we reach a hard spot then I’m going to be brought in and we can ask what we’re going to be doing with this family.”
Local commanders haven’t had the authority to withhold incentive payments from contractors to force the contractor to take action. For Nieswiadomy, that’s meant limited options.
“Those are the tools right now. I’m the advocate for our families,” he said.
Incentive payments are based on things like customer service surveys. Recently, the General Accounting Office told Congress those surveys are suspect, adding the Pentagon has little insight into the real condition of the housing managed by private contractors.
Congress has included language in the defense budget that would require the Pentagon to negotiate a tenants’ bill of rights for military housing. Local commanders will have some discretion to withhold incentive payments.
Bradley said she hears from families that some of them feel stuck. They can find a place on their own, but San Diego is expensive and even finding a home can be tough.
“Our families are kind of in a unique position because some of them don’t have anywhere else to live," she said. "They can’t afford to live out in town.”
In Murphy Canyon, where there are complaints of mold in the ducts, the contractor has told the Navy that every home will be inspected. For now though, at least 17 families are expected to remain in hotels over Christmas, with no definite answer on when they will come home — that number is down from Thanksgiving.
Naval Base San Diego will also bring on three full-time people in January to inspect military housing. At the moment, they have no inspectors, according to the Navy.
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