This article by Karen Jowers originally appeared on Military Times, the nation's largest independent newsroom dedicated to covering the military and veteran community.
With most of the tenant bill of rights available for military housing residents, and more to come soon, some lawmakers are concerned there’s no teeth to those rights, and want to hold installation commanders responsible.
“It seems there are some base commanders who don’t understand their responsibilities,” said Rep. John Garamendi, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee, during a hearing March 10. He said he’d heard from military family housing advocates that the tenant bill of rights is good, “but it lacks teeth.”
“I want to make sure that base commanders are held responsible for the well-being of all personnel on their base. I don’t know of any other way to enforce the [tenant] bill of rights than to hold the base commanders responsible.
“So as we look at the coming [defense authorization bill], I’ll be looking at how that might be accomplished. If the base commander wants his next assignment, he’d better be sure that the base housing is not an issue in his record.”
That readiness subcommittee and the military personnel subcommittee held a joint hearing on privatized military housing, pressing executives of three of the major privatized housing companies about their progress in implementing housing reforms that were aimed at stamping out mold, rodents and other health and safety issues in military housing.
But one company, Clark Realty Capital, declined the subcommittees’ invitation to testify about their progress, and it did not sit well with lawmakers.
“Clark Realty has declined our invitation to join this hearing. I’m really upset about this. I’m gravely disappointed by their decision and it raises concerns about their willingness and their ability to be transparent, not only to Congress, but far more importantly, to the families that are in their homes.
“Clark Realty, you are clearly in the sights of this committee and we will be assessing which of our oversight tools might be brought to bear to get answers,” Garamendi said.
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“I want to call out the irresponsible conduct of Clark Realty. I want to convey to them that you can run, but you can’t hide,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., chairwoman of the military personnel subcommittee. She noted that in the closed session with military family advocates, lawmakers heard serious complaints about some of the Clark properties, including continued resident dissatisfaction at Fort Belvoir “due to shoddy maintenance and improper remediation of environmental hazards.”
And since the company wouldn’t come to Congress, the lawmakers will take a trip to Fort Belvoir to explore residents’ problems, Garamendi said.
Speier said among other things, she wants to ask Clark Realty about lagging implementation of the tenant bill of rights.
The tenant bill of rights was required by law in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, as part of comprehensive reform provisions to address pervasive issues with mold, rodents and other health, safety and environmental hazards in privatized military housing.
The executives from Balfour Beatty Communities, LendLease Americas and Corvias Group, LLC, answered questions about their implementation of 15 of 18 of the provisions of the tenant bill of rights that have been released by the Defense Department so far, and said they were on track and in agreement with DoD with the remaining three — the dispute resolution process, the withholding of tenants’ rent as a result of unresolved disputes, and the universal lease agreement. Those are on track to be in place around the start of the summer moving season.
Corvias and Lendlease have been issuing the seven-year maintenance history of homes to prospective tenants; Balfour Beatty has been providing these in a pilot program in a number of locations, until the universal lease agreement is finalized.
The executives described a variety of steps they’ve taken to improve their operations and their maintenance, and their communication with housing residents, even amidst COVID-19 restrictions. For example, Balfour Beatty now works with a national heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, company to manage and maintain the HVAC systems in all their homes at all locations.
That also helps local maintenance staff concentrate on other issues, said Richard Taylor, president of facility operations, renovations and contraction for Balfour Beatty. They’ve also implemented a program to increase the retention of their maintenance staff members, and decrease the turnover.
Among other things, the companies have implemented online systems and apps for residents to submit and track work orders; they’ve been involved in town halls with commands and residents; some have established resident advisory boards for feedback from residents.
When asked pointedly about paying for damages to a military families’ household goods if the damage occurs because of the condition of the house, each of the executives said they do take care of those costs. That has been an issue with a number of families who have alleged mold infestation of their belongings, including some at Fort Hood.
Carolyn Tregarthen, managing director of Lendlease Communities, said the company is aware that some Fort Hood families are not satisfied with their experience in family housing, and that the experiences of the families “is a top priority for me personally and for every member of my team.”
She said she regrets “that a small number of Fort Hood residents have chosen to resort to litigation rather than work with us directly to address their concerns.”
About a dozen families are involved in lawsuits surrounding their housing at Fort Hood, involving allegations of health issues and damaged property they contend was caused by mold contamination. But attorney Jim Moriarty’s firm is representing about 100 Fort Hood families whose cases are in various stages of development, according to a spokeswoman.
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