Top Air Force officials this week moved to address growing outrage over filthy and hazardous conditions faced by service members and their families living in privatized base housing.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein on Tuesday ordered all base commanders around the world to conduct a complete review of all 74,500 family housing units by March 1.
In an email Wednesday, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said the service is starting to look into setting up a “bill of rights” to give residents more power to deal with the property owners, when their housing is sub-par.
“We are also looking at how we can work with project owners and Congress to establish a bill of rights for our residents with lease terms that give them financial leverage with the project owners,” Stefanek said.
A Reuters report Monday said that, in an interview, Wilson and Goldfein said the bill of rights could allow families to withhold rent or break leases if their housing is unsafe.
Stefanek said Wednesday the possible bill of rights is still in its infancy and no further details were available.
In congressional testimony last week, John Henderson, assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy, agreed that residents should be able to withhold their rent in such cases.
“The residents should have their choice of whether they pay their rent or not, if they feel like their landlord isn’t giving them a healthy and safe place to live,” Henderson said during a Feb. 13 Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing. “That makes the landlord responsive financially to the resident.”
Henderson also said more project owners should offer rebates for problems such as untimely repairs and power outages.
Senators heard testimony about black mold, lead paint, termites, radon, flooding, faulty wiring, rodents and other issues with privatized military housing at military bases, which have sickened many military families. One Marine wife, who was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, testified that termites fell out of their light fixtures into their beds — but the base’s housing office essentially shrugged off her complaints and said termites were to be expected in the region.
In a Tuesday release announcing the housing review, Wilson and Goldfein said those housing conditions “are not acceptable.”
The review “will be the housing equivalent of a safety stand down,” the release said. Over a 10-day period, the Air Force said it wants a complete, in-person health and safety check of all of its 74,500 family housing units. The results will help senior leaders better understand how widespread and severe these problems are, and help the service solve them, the Air Force said.
The walk-through of homes, with residents, are intended to “document any health or safety risks,” the Air Force said, and command teams are required to “solicit feedback from their airmen about any health or safety issues in the housing they occupy.”
But the call for a “100 percent in-person health and safety check” of all homes does not necessarily mean a walk-through of each and every house.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, Col. Leslie Maher, commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, laid out a two-phase process by which the base will assess its housing situation.
For the first phase, Maher encouraged a member of each household to come to one of three community centers on Thursday or Friday, and talk face-to-face with officials about the status of their homes — specifically, whether they’re having any unaddressed problems with moisture and mold, insects and rodents, lead paint, and outstanding work orders.
If those residents are willing to have officials come and look at any problem areas or concerns with their homes, Maher said a two-person team would make an appointment to visit next Monday through Wednesday.
“We need at least 10% participation from each housing area to make this a successful assessment of Scott’s overall housing quality,” Maher wrote. “My direction is 100% contact, so I’m asking for your help in accomplishing this task!”
In an interview, Scott spokeswoman Karen Pettit said the 10 percent participation goal from each housing area is in line with the secretary’s direction. With nearly 1,600 housing units on base, Pettit said it would be impossible to stage walk-throughs of every single home by March 1. And a face-to-face conversation with a resident from each home, followed by voluntary walk-throughs with people who are having problems, will meet the Air Force’s intent, she said.
Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in a follow-up email that “There will be a 100% review of military family housing with the intent for leaders to see as many homes as possible where our Airmen/residents allow access.”
Wilson and Goldfein said in the release that they were also alarmed by witnesses’ comments that their valid complaints about housing were ignored by on-site management — or even drew retaliation.
“Most troubling was the concern some families had that, if they reported a problem, they would face retaliation for speaking up,” Wilson and Goldfein wrote to commanders Tuesday. “The health and safety of our airmen and their families is commander business.”
They said the Air Force will adopt a “standard checklist” to make sure it consistently handles housing issues that crop up. Senior Air Force leaders will be responsible for identifying and fixing problems in their airmen’s housing.
“Our airmen and their families should have military housing that will not adversely impact their health and safety,” Wilson and Goldfein said. “More importantly, they should have confidence that they can identify problems without retaliation or fear of reprisal. This is about taking care of our people.”
Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.