NEW YORK (Reuters) - Troubled by widespread health and safety hazards uncovered by a Reuters investigation into U.S. military housing, Congress will hold hearings next month to ensure that "what we're seeing now can never happen again," said Michigan Democrat Gary Peters, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
During the hearings, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 13, lawmakers will question the Department of Defense and private contractors who house thousands of U.S. military families on bases across the country, according to Senate staff familiar with the plans.
U.S. senators said the news articles and mounting complaints from military families demonstrate a need for immediate oversight.
Congress must do "all that we can ensure that no soldier, airman, sailor, Marine or their families have to worry about the safety of their homes," Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, said in a statement. His state is home to Fort Bragg, where families have signed a petition demanding improvements by their private landlord.
The hearings mark a growing bipartisan commitment from Congress to ensure the safety of 700,000 service members, spouses and children who live in homes operated by private companies on bases in partnerships with the Department of Defense.
"We look forward to engaging with Congress through productive discussions on privatized housing," said Department of Defense spokeswoman Heather Babb.
The hearings come in response to a Reuters series that revealed a dark side of the U.S. MilitaryHousing Privatization Initiative, the largest-ever corporate takeover of federal housing. Two decades ago, the Defense Department began turning over most family housing on U.S. bases to private companies to manage in an effort to improve living conditions.
In some homes, however, lead paint hazards threaten children; rampant mold sickens others; ceilings leak or collapse into bedrooms, and rodents soil cribs and carpets. Even some new homes are riddled with defects, and the housing often isn't accessible to state or county inspectors. Families have limited tenant rights and can be left penniless or powerless to challenge property managers in business with their military employers.
Behind the safety lapses are private landlords with iron-clad assurances of profit from Defense Department rent stipends. One of them stands to earn $1 billion in fees from confidential Army housing contracts that last a half-century.
The DOD has long maintained that the privatization program vastly improved housing on U.S. bases. But since Reuters began publishing its reports, military families have pressed Congress to hold themilitary and contractors accountable for home safety lapses.
"This is a long time coming," said Janna Driver, an Air Force spouse whose children were sickened by household mold on a base in Oklahoma. "I think these articles are why these Congressional hearings are happening."
More than 100 bases nationwide have privatized housing, leaving military branches with limited oversight. The program enlisted private firms to build and renovate homes and maintain high quality for the residents.
"If they aren't getting it, we need to look at what the Department of Defense is doing to hold these contractors accountable," said Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Its ranking member, Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island, began calling for the housing hearings last month.
According to Inhofe, the Subcommittees on Personnel and Readiness will conduct the hearings. The scrutiny could help Congress consider legislative measures to boost safety and accountability in privatized on-base housing, Senate staff said.
Hearings represent the latest response to the Reuters reports. Measures announced earlier include a Government Accountability Office examination of base housing, an investigation by the Defense Department's Inspector General, and a nationwide inspection program in Army homes for lead, mold and asbestos that could cost up to $386 million.
The housing concerns have also mobilized other senators. Last week, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein sent letters to the Secretaries of the Navy and Air Force, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, citing Reuters' coverage and demanding contract documents for base housing in her state.