The military needs to get troops “out of the hotel management business,” one congressman told military officials Wednesday, and to let troops focus on their duties rather than fixing barracks issues.
“When I’m talking to the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, for example, and he’s trying to figure out how to get his Marines better trained to oversee HVAC systems,” Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) told military housing officials. “I want those Marines better trained to do bad things to bad people and not managing buildings.”
Waltz chairs the House Armed Services’ Readiness Subcommittee, which held a meeting on the state of DOD housing and Infrastructure. with Pentagon and military service officials.
Lawmakers and Defense Department officials have acknowledged ongoing problems with barracks for years. On Wednesday, several lawmakers asked service officials to use more privatized housing in an effort to shift the problem away from the military and its troops and on to private companies.
“We have private sector entities that do it incredibly well at scale, all over the world and they would certainly go out of business in a second if any of their facilities look like this,” Waltz said.
Rachel Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment told lawmakers that the Army is removing housing responsibilities from soldier’s additional duties. The change is in line with a requirement set by Congress in the national defense bill, calling for the service to switch to civilian barracks managers beginning in fiscal year 2025.
The Air Force said its Airmen Dorm Leader program has been successful and efficient at addressing service member housing needs.
The hearing comes after a long list of official investigations and media reports have revealed deep issues with military housing in every branch, particularly in barracks that are home to most junior enlisted service members. The Government Accountability Office slammed the services for unsafe and unsanitary living conditions for junior enlisted troops in a September report. Servicemembers told the GAO they felt expendable and unsafe. Congress said the issue affects military readiness and recruiting as the Army falls farther and farther behind on recruiting goals.
A majority of the GAO’s criticism focused on unaccompanied housing for young soldiers in Army barracks and Air Force dormitories.
After the report’s release, the Army told Congress that 23% of its more than 6,700 barracks were in “poor and failing condition.” Jacobson said Wednesday that the service would use $1.5 billion a year to fix its unaccompanied housing barracks.
Ravi Chaudhary, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Energy and Environment said that 35% of its dorms were ready for repair and system replacements. Chaudhary said that the Air Force would invest $1.1 billion for its fixes.
Service officials from the Army, Air Force and Navy told Congress they would incorporate more privatized housing into living options for young troops. Officials also told lawmakers they are hiring additional staff, creating resources to improve accountability of private landlords and adding resources for troops to better understand their rights as tenants.
Also on Wednesday, the Marine Corps announced it would conduct environmental, health, and safety inspections at each of its barracks.
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Barracks on bases across the military are either government-owned, which includes permanent or training barracks, or privately owned. In 1996, Congress gave DOD the authority to obtain private financing and management to repair, renovate, build, and operate military housing. Today, private companies are responsible for nearly 99% of family housing, but far fewer of the dorm-like barracks that unaccompanied service members live in.
According to the GAO, the Army and Navy have seven privatized barracks projects. One of those Navy projects, officials told lawmakers, is for privatized unaccompanied housing into fleet-concentrated areas like San Diego and Norfolk, Virginia.
Since 2019, soldiers have raised questions about privatized housing’s lack of resident assistance, poor conditions, and company performance, according to the GAO.
Subcommittee ranking member Rep. John Garamendi (D-Cali) said that Congress should direct the services to pursue more private housing in the next national defense bill.
“Along the way we should require that they pay careful attention to all of the problems that were created in the family housing over the previous 30 years,” Garamendi said, adding that the military needs good real estate lawyers to go up against the private sector’s legal counsel.
An Army spokesperson told Task & Purpose that it would consider privatized unaccompanied housing “when and where it makes sense to do so” taking into account the cost to privatize, installation demographics, availability of off-post housing and mission of the installation.
One issue is that private companies that build housing for the military generally make their money by collecting the servicemember’s Basic Allowance for Housing payments, or BAH, an extra stipend the military provides to members who rent or buy their own homes. But single junior enlisted members often don’t qualify for BAH or lose it when they deploy.
“I think we wouldn’t do it where there is a population that deploys all the time,” an Army official told Task & Purpose. “If a population deploys, then they’re not gonna be receiving Basic Allowance for Housing and then the project sort of falls apart.”
To test out privatized barracks, the Army designed a pilot project at Fort Irwin to create 544 spaces for junior enlisted soldiers. The project is awaiting approval from the Secretary of Defense before heading to the Office of Management and Budget for review, Jacobson said.
“We found a place where we think it’s gonna work and that’s Fort Irwin where we have somewhat of a captured audience because outside the gate, there really isn’t a place to live,” the Army official said.
Waltz asked the officials if anyone was fired in the chain of command that oversaw the barracks highlighted by the GAO report. Brendan Owens, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Installations, Energy and Environment said he was not aware of anyone.
To increase accountability, Waltz suggested that Congress require base commanders be held accountable for barracks and other base facilities.
“You’re going to be held responsible for making your bed. If you don’t, you’re gonna get in trouble in this case,” Waltz said.
At the Pentagon level, Owens said he does monthly check-ins with his assistant secretary counterparts and bi-weekly unaccompanied housing check-ins. He also noted periodic surveys to all military departments.
“I think we can do a lot better,” Owens said. “We’re exploring various different technologies and strategies that are going to be able to help us shorten that cycle time and really be on top of these issues proactively.”
He did not elaborate on the specific technologies or strategies.
Officials also briefed the committee on reprogramming efforts and creative funding solutions to address barracks issues.
The system “is going to give us the ability to look at an asset level, understand what the long term prognosis for that asset is and then better account for any risks that we are taking,” Owens said.
At the Pentagon level, officials are developing a sustainment management system to look at funding for fixing and replacing specific assets rather than the entire portfolio or installation.
Following the Navy, Berger told Congress that other services would be granted authority to reprogram money from MWR, or family support, funding to put free Wifi into barracks.
The Army is considering ways to be more cost-effective and efficient by using land sales to fund privatized housing, alternative construction methods, like prefabricated and modular homes and 3D-printed homes, Jacobson wrote in her testimony.
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