Problems with construction and maintenance in some newer privatized military family housing call into question the success of the Defense Department’s major initiative to improve housing for military families, according to a new report.
A new investigation by Reuters published Friday centers mostly on some families at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, but builds on the news organization’s previous investigations into Army and Marine Corps privatized family housing.
“What the Pentagon touts as privatization’s signature achievement — the building of new housing for military families — is marred by faulty construction and poor upkeep,” the report found.
There has been “limited federal oversight and little accountability” for the companies that have taken over the responsibility of operating the housing.
The report cited “shoddy workmanship, raw sewage, rotten wood and chronic leaks” leading to mold infestation and other issues “putting residents' health at risk.”
Reuters conducted interviews, reviewed court records and documents from the Defense Department’s Inspector General, and found “serious construction problems with new or renovated housing on at least 17 bases.”
Problems include water damage, improper electrical wiring, missing smoke alarms and construction errors that have required residents to leave their new homes.
At Tinker, landlord Balfour Beatty had to replace water lines in each house and fix the systemic plumbing failures just six years after the houses were built. The company and the Air Force also inspected the rooms that housed heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment, and found that half of the homes had mold or water damage, Reuters reported.
Some of the families at Tinker Air Force Base said family members had suffered respiratory ailments in their homes, and they complained to landlord Balfour Beatty about the mold problems.
Balfour Beatty said it tried to address the problems. In one case, a family said the company moved them into temporary housing and then later paid for a hotel.
The company continued to collect their rent, paid by allotment, and when the family moved off base, charged them a month’s rent for terminating the lease early, as well as billing them $1,171 for “unspecified damages,” Reuters said.
The Reuters report also refers to a lawsuit pending against Hunt Companies and its operation of housing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, where 13 military families have sued over the outbreak of mold in their homes and the inadequate treatment the company allegedly provided.
Hunt Companies has denied allegations of poor maintenance, mold outbreaks or harm to tenants. Hunt Companies and the Air Force have agreed that the work to address the issues will be completed in phases, as some of the homes have required extensive repairs, Reuters reported.
“In light of occurrences of moisture at some of our residences at Keesler Air Force Base, we have executed a multi-phase moisture remediation project plan, which was designed in conjunction with relevant specialists,” Hunt Companies spokeswoman Cindy Gersch said. “We take this matter extremely seriously and will continue our proactive approach to managing our projects for our valued residents and communities.”
In response to Reuters’ questions about its oversight of privatized housing, the Air Force said inspections are conducted each year on a sampling of homes or when concerns arise.
Regarding construction, the Air Force requires private companies to hire third parties to make sure homes meet local building codes.
An Air Force spokeswoman told Reuters that the service “places the health and safety of its members as a top priority.”
Reuters said Balfour Beatty declined to discuss conditions at specific homes at Tinker, but did say that most residents are pleased with its work.
“We are steadfastly committed to making things right in these home,” Balfour Beatty told Reuters.
Company officials said they’ve been transparent with the Air Force and with residents about the plumbing problems that affected a “select segment” of the homes.
Balfour Beatty has also sued the company that made the water lines, alleging that failure of the equipment caused “extensive leaks” throughout the Tinker homes, according to Reuters.
Reuters also found notations in inspection records of leaking HVAC systems and roofs, backed up sewage lines and standing water in homes where the water lines were replaced.
Balfour Beatty manages 43,000 housing units at various Air Force, Army and Navy bases. Military Times couldn’t immediately reach officials at Balfour Beatty or Air Force officials for comment.
Balfour Beatty is one of several companies that have been heavily involved in the military housing privatization initiative.
In that DoD initiative, most family housing — more than 200,000 units — on installations in the U.S. has been transferred to private companies.
The housing privatization initiative began in the 1990s as a result of the widespread deterioration of family housing, which had suffered from years of maintenance backlogs. Before housing privatization, the bulk of housing allowances for troops living on the installation went back to the services for the operation and maintenance of government housing.
But the services had to take money from housing operation and maintenance accounts for other priorities, leading to the deterioration.
Through working with private companies, DoD and the services were able to leverage their dollars into more housing, faster, as the private companies could build and renovate housing more quickly than the traditional military construction process. Through these agreements, the government’s goal was to get a ratio of at least $3 in housing improvements from the private sector for every $1 spent by the government.
With privatized housing, troops pay rent through allotment— generally their housing allowance — directly to the private company that owns, operates, maintains, renovates and replaces the houses.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.