Among the dozens of requirements outlined in the latest version of the National Defense Authorization Act is the requirement for the Secretary of Defense to create a public database for privatized housing complaints.
So, that will be… a lot.
The 2020 NDAA — which still has to be voted on by the full House and Senate and signed by President Donald Trump — aims to tackle the privatized military housing issues which have plagued the Pentagon and defense committees for months by finally releasing a Military Housing Privatization Initiative Tenant Bill of Rights.
Among the broader points of the Tenant Bill of Rights is the right to live in a house that meets “applicable health and environmental standards,” and that has working utilities and fixtures.
The fact that this even needs to be clarified speaks volumes.
Landlords will be required to provide maintenance history to new tenants before they sign their lease, and tenants will be allowed a “plain-language briefing” before they sign, to get the lowdown on any other fees, how work orders are tracked, who the military tenant advocate is, and how the dispute resolution process plays out.
It also confronts retaliation in detail, which is something countless tenants have said they've faced when reporting problems with their housing. The bill does this by acknowledging all the ways landlords, the chain of command and housing management can't mess with them: harassment; interfering with a tenant's career; increasing rent or decreasing services; unlawful recovery of the housing unit; among others.
Aside from the Bill of Rights, the NDAA also directs the assistant secretary of defense for sustainment to “investigate all reports of reprisal against a member of the armed forces for reporting an issue relating to a housing unit.”
Landlords would be barred from allowing any employees to continue to work under the contract who have committed work-order fraud, and they'll be required to have an up-to-date, real-time, easily-accessible work order system. It also requires that the work orders be signed off on by the tenant, and the head of the installation's housing management office, before the order is closed.
In the event that the landlord conducts a test over the health and safety conditions of the house, they would be required to share those results with the tenant and installation housing management office within three days.
And if a service secretary finds that a landlord has failed “to maintain safe and sanitary conditions,” which cause a tenant to receive medical care, the housing company will be required to reimburse the military for the cost of that care.
The NDAA would also require the defense secretary to develop a “rating system or similar mechanism” that helps “identify and measure health and safety hazards,” such as mold growth, lead-based paint, asbestos, and more.
As for other installation commanders, the NDAA would require them to review each landlord's mold mitigation and pest control plan, and flag any issues that are found.
The housing management office will be responsible for making a physical inspection of a home before the landlord deems it ready for new tenants to move in; checking in with the tenant on a specified schedule to determine their satisfaction with their home, both after move-in and move-out; and filling in for the tenant in walk-throughs of the unit with the landlord before signing the lease, if the tenant is unable to attend.
Landlords will not be allowed to “conduct any promotional events to encourage tenants to fill out maintenance comment cards or satisfaction surveys of any kind,” without the explicit approval of the head of the housing management office
At least once a year, landlords would have to submit a report to the Pentagon with information regarding all the homes that landlord provides: a summary of the landlord's financial performance; the base management fees, which includes rent payments and maintenance; asset management fees, including what they've paid to keep homes in good condition; and more.
Any agreement or form that the landlord could present to the tenant would have to be approved by the assistant secretary of defense for sustainment — which, the NDAA says, includes non-disclosure agreements.
But there's a catch: Non-disclosure agreements are still able to be used during “the settlement of litigation,” which is primarily how these agreements are offered to tenants who have been fighting to address issues with their homes.
Every home would be required to have a carbon monoxide detector installed, which may be in response to the news more than 80 homes at Fort Bragg were found to be at-risk for carbon monoxide poisoning.
The new bill would require the secretary of defense to designate a chief housing officer, who would oversee the creation of housing policies and provide oversight alongside the service secretaries.
Before deciding whether to renew a contract, or enter into a new contract with a housing company, the service secretaries would be directed to review the company's history of substandard housing, and take into consideration the thoughts of installation commanders both at the installation in question of the new contract, and installations that the company already serves.
The contract can be rescinded if the company breaches the contract and does not fix things in “a timely manner.” It's unclear what that timeline looks like, though the Air Force recently gave Balfour Beatty 90 days to clean up its act, which could then lead into a formal dispute process if they fail to do so, possibly resulting in their contract's termination.
In other words, there are still a number of steps that come before a company's contract being rescinded.
If the NDAA is passed, each service's assistant secretary would be required to submit a plan to the defense committees by Feb. 1 outlining the creation of a privatized military housing council in order to help oversee the program and recognize and address problems.
By the same deadline, the defense secretary would be required to define a standard to Congress for “minimum credentials used … for all inspectors of health and environmental hazards” at privatized military housing.
The NDAA would also require a publicly-available Inspector General report on housing across installations every year until 2022; and 30 days after its passing, the defense secretary must order the development of a “universal lease agreement,” which will include the Tenant Bill of Rights and Tenant Responsibilities, with an addendum pertaining to the state the lease is for.
Votes to finalize the NDAA are expected to happen Wednesday, and President Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning that he would “sign this historic defense legislation immediately!” The landlords would then have until February 1, 2020, to agree or disagree to the new terms. Esper has until March 1 to inform the defense committees of any companies that rejected the new agreements.
The Tenant Bill of Rights has been something every service has pointed to as a major fix — a very clear set of what tenants don't have to put up with from their landlords — to the housing crisis.
And lawmakers have pointed to this NDAA as a required step forward in correcting housing woes that ran rampant for years. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement on Monday that he believes the housing reforms will “make sure the families serving our country have safe places to live.”
The only question now is: Will it work?