When the Pentagon released its Tenant Bill of Rights — a set of measures meant to put more power in the hands of troops and their families who live in privatized military housing — there were three glaring holes.
Three rights — withholding rent, access to maintenance history of the homes, and a dispute resolution process — were included in Congress’ version in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, but not in the Pentagon’s version. Defense Secretary Mark Esper later told lawmakers he’d need their help in administering them.
Why was that?
It essentially boils down to the fact that the financial backers of the Military Housing Privatization Initiative are uncomfortable with them, two Defense Department officials explained to reporters on Friday under the condition of anonymity.
One of the officials said the “underlying issue” in not yet being able to instill the three rights is “protecting the financial interest of the bond-holders themselves … it’s reconciling how we’re going to implement it so that the lenders can be comfortable with it, effectively.
“This isn’t just about, also, OSD, the military departments and the project companies — we have this other entity out there we have to be sensitive to because they have a say in it because of the loan that they have on all of the projects,” they said.
The officials said on Friday that they raised concerns over the three rights to Congress, telling them some of the provisions would be "problematic," but that lawmakers put them in the final NDAA anyway, essentially forcing the Pentagon to figure it out now that it’s law.
The issues with one of the measures, which would allow tenants access to their home’s maintenance history, for example, were two-fold.
First, one of the officials said that providing maintenance history isn’t common in the private industry.
“The lenders don’t like it. They don’t like not having consistent approaches across their lending communities,” they said.
And second, the official said that they didn’t want to overwhelm the service member with “pages and pages” of maintenance history. It’s unclear if any troops raised that as an issue, or if it was the official’s conclusion.
The official added that they are trying to work through “how we can meet the letter of the law … in a manner that is more user-friendly,” such as providing a summary of maintenance history, but making clear to the service member that the details would be provided upon request.
Overall, the officials said that the NDAA was “vastly different” than what they were expecting, and that some of the provisions included by Congress took the bill of rights in “a little different direction than what we had originally had dialogue with them on.”
You wouldn’t know that was the case from a joint statement from Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) — the two top lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee — who lambasted Pentagon leaders for not going “far enough to protect our military families.”
“The FY20 National Defense Authorization Act was clear—this Bill of Rights should include three basic items: the right to dispute resolution, the ability to withhold rent, and access to a home’s maintenance history," Inhofe and Reed said. "Additionally, the Department led our military families to believe these protections were in the Bill of Rights when they circulated a draft for comment as early as May 2019 with those items included.”
Despite the housing issue remaining a major military news issue over the last year, resulting in a series of congressional hearings, one of the officials on Friday downplayed how widespread the problem is, saying it "isn't the vast majority of housing, it's not the system issue that it sounds like."
The official also recycled a frequently-made point many have used to downplay how extensive the problem is — that the homes have "good occupancy."
The idea that high occupancy translates to good service is something the housing companies frequently point to. It's also something that Elizabeth Field, director of the Government Accountability Office Defense Capabilities and Management, disproved last year, saying families "often choose to live in privatized housing for reasons that have nothing to do with the housing itself."