By M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. military families are expressing far deeper dissatisfaction with their housing conditions than their private landlords claim, according to a granular survey of tenants at more than 100 bases across the country that was recently presented to Congress.
The survey, conducted by the nonprofit Military Family Advisory Network, was initially publicized in February. Three months later, the group has released a more detailed analysis of the results, providing a base-by-base look at the survey findings and a window into the problems most frequently cited.
For more than a year, Reuters has exposed slum-like conditions dogging the Department of Defense housing privatization program, describing how private landlords reap billions in payments even as tenants clamor for repairs. The armed forces began privatizing base housing for military families two decades ago.
The Department of Defense said it couldn’t discuss the survey, but is “confident that privatizing housing was the right thing to do,” a spokeswoman said. “However, we also recognize there has been a lapse in overseeing implementation of DoD's housing privatization program.”
The survey results, built from responses by 15,000 families living in 46 states and 158 bases, echo the Reuters reports of widespread concern about housing conditions among military tenants. In all, 55% of families who responded gave a negative view of their base housing. Just 16% gave positive marks, with the rest neutral.
The survey results stand in stark contrast to those reported by private military housing operators, who annually poll a subset of their residents and release results that often list satisfaction rates above 90%. Those annual survey results can help companies earn Defense Department bonuses that, cumulatively, total in the millions of dollars a year.
In all, more than 100 bases had an overall negative satisfaction score, with 6,629 reports of housing-related health problems, 3,342 of mold, 1,564 of pest infestations and 46 of carbon monoxide leaks.
The study turned up deep pockets of discontent:
- At Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, landlord Lincoln Military Housing reported 70% to 90% of residents were satisfied with housing in 2016. The nonprofit’s survey, by contrast, found 10% of respondents had a positive view, and 58% a negative one. Tenants cited 204 reports of poor maintenance, 92 of excessive filth at move-in, and 78 of structural concerns. Lincoln Military Housing did not respond to an interview request.
- At Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, a survey commissioned by Hunt Military Housing said 90% to 94% of residents were satisfied with housing in 2016. The new survey found just 15% held a positive view, and 59% a negative one. Kirtland families cited 43 reports of mold, 24 of vermin infestations and 3 carbon monoxide leaks. A Hunt spokesperson said a survey conducted earlier this year by base command found 88% of residents were satisfied with their housing at Kirtland. Still, the company said it is working with the Air Force to address concerns and has “further improved our processes and procedures,” including adding a “Hunt Promise Helpline” allowing residents direct contact with corporate management.
- At Fort Hood in Texas, 71% to 79% of residents liked their housing in 2016, according to a survey commissioned by the installation’s Australian-based landlord LendLease Group and the Army. The new survey found only 15% of base families had a positive view, and 54% a negative one. Driving these results: 121 reports of poor maintenance, 82 of mold and 67 of dilapidated housing. In a statement to Reuters, LendLease said it has confidence in the results of the surveys it obtained from a third-party research firm. The company said it couldn’t comment on the new report without a better understanding of its methodology.
The three companies are among more than a dozen private real estate developers and property managers operating military housing on bases across the country under a flagship government privatization program that has been expanding since the early 2000s.
MILITARY HOUSING ACTION PLAN
The Air Force acknowledged airmen don’t believe privatized housing is meeting their needs, spokesman Mark Kinkade said in a statement to Reuters. “We heard that message loud and clear,” he said.
Following Senate hearings in February, leadership at Air Force bases visited 11,534 homes and found 5,102 health and safety concerns, he said. The Air Force and private landlords have addressed 3,855 and are tracking the remaining 1,247.
Army and Navy officials say they have yet to see the expanded results of the Military Family Advisory Network’s survey. The Navy said the new figures may not reflect recent efforts to improve housing.
Last week, Army Secretary Mark Esper, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson met with senior executives from nine private companies that manage military housing to discuss a proposed tenant bill of rights, modifications to incentive fees paid to the companies and other means of improving living conditions.
"We are taking immediate steps to resolve both individual and systemic issues to provide the quality housing and proactive management we envision," Wilson said in a statement.
A Reuters reporting team visited 16 federal bases last year and spoke with hundreds of families, finding swaths of housing plagued by hazards that can pose serious health risks to tenants. Residents on military bases often lacked basic rights renters can rely on in civilian communities, such as the ability to withhold rent from derelict landlords.
Prompted by the Reuters reports, the military branches pledged to hire hundreds of new housing staff and have moved to renegotiate the 50-year contracts held by the private real estate firms.
Congress has held multiple hearings to question private landlords and military brass, and has examined the survey results as part of its inquiries.
Military Family Advisory Network is an Alexandria, Virginia, non-profit whose stated mission is to represent the interests of U.S. military families. Its study is subjective, based on opinions provided by participants, rather than on independent inspections. Its survey, conducted online, collected responses from a portion of the approximately 200,000 families living in U.S. military privatized housing. It gathered the responses over a one-week period ending February 6. Since then, the military has put some significant reforms in place.
Earlier this month, the group provided the more detailed results to the Senate Armed Services Committee, where members have sponsored legislation to create a tenant bill of rights, penalize landlords who do not quickly fix hazards and mandate regular and unannounced spot inspections of base homes.
Some who took part in the survey say they have little power in dealing with landlords. “We can’t afford to move off base,” said Megan Konzen, a tenant of Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, where the vast majority of respondents gave a negative rating. “We are stuck.”
(Editing by Ronnie Greene)