Last August, Reuters issued a special report about how the military continuously ignored military housing hazards, resulting in the lead poising of military dependents, including children. The article circulated on social media within the military community in the following weeks – more and more military families stepped forward to share their stories about substandard military housing and posted pictures on social media. The pictures seemed to horrify everyone except the privatized housing companies tasked with providing safe and habitable living conditions – all while lining their pockets at the expense of the seemingly bottomless Department of Defense budget.
Since then, Reuters has continued their investigation – calling it Ambushed at Home: The hazardous, squalid housing of American military families. Other news outlets began to report on the appalling conditions Congress decided to reopen its investigation into substandard military housing and this Thursday (March 7th), Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps leaders are scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. While a lot of military families are hopeful that these hearings will bring about much-needed change to policy, it’s hard not to take the cynical view that little will transpire beyond the action-oriented words said into the small microphones. After all, when a group of concerned military spouses approached the Department of Defense Military Family Readiness Council back in 2017 about concerns over dangerous and subpar housing, they were told that the ‘family readiness’ council didn’t deal with such issues (although in all fairness, it isn’t exactly clear what purpose the organization does serve).
Crystal Cornwall was one of those spouses who presented detailed findings to the Military Family Readiness Council. Over the past few years, she’s been a tenacious advocate for safer military housing. She appeared before the Senate last month and testified to the conditions of military housing and is in the process of launching a new nonprofit – Safe Military Housing Initiative. In addition to personal testimonies, data from a military housing survey conducted earlier this year by the Military Family Advisory Network (click here to read that preliminary research report) was presented to the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services Joint Subcommittee on Personnel, Readiness, and Management Support.
It’s important to note that not all military housing is bad or unsafe. There are plenty of military families who have had positive experiences with privatized military housing (my family being one of them). But there are also a lot of families who are subjected to mold, rats, moisture, lead-paint, and other hazardous conditions that are not being addressed by privatized military housing companies. Such companies that are mentioned multiple times throughout the Military Family Advisory Network housing survey are Balfour Beatty, Corvias, Hunt, Lincoln, and Michael’s Military Housing.
Some Questions and Answers about Military Housing
When looking at some comments on social media regarding this issue, there are questions from those who are not super familiar with privatized housing, Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), and the potential impact that these hearings will have on military families. Here are some questions that I’ve seen circulating about military housing and my best attempt to answer them.
Do you currently live in privatized military housing? No. We currently rent a house in the local community. We chose to live off post for this assignment because of schools and my husband’s commute to the Pentagon. In the almost fifteen years that my husband has been in the Army, we’ve actually only lived on-post once – when we were stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. We had a great experience living in a historic quarters and while there were a few issues, they were dealt with swiftly by maintenance. We are open to the possibility of living on-post again and will likely try to do so at our next assignment (some installations have a year-long waiting list for housing).
Is military housing free? No. If a military family lives on post, they are paying for the privilege to do so. In addition to base pay, service members received a Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) as part of of their benefits package; cost-of-living, whether or not a service member has dependents, and rank all determine the BAH amount. BAH can be used to live in military housing, in which the privatized military housing companies typically take the entire BAH amount. While there are a few instances where a military family could be required to live on post in military housing, the majority of families have the option to live off-post. In this case, their BAH can be put toward rent or a mortgage. However, whether or not BAH covers rent varies on market conditions and a host of other variables.
If housing conditions are so bad, why would military families chose to live on post? Living on-post can provide an experience that is unique to the military – one filled with tradition and camaraderie. But sometimes reasons for living on post are financially-driven, like not being able to afford rent off-post because BAH doesn’t cover rent. For example, an 05 (a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army) has a higher BAH than an E4 (a Specialist in the Army). If the rental market off-post is geared toward 05 BAH, then an E4 may not be able to afford to rent in the local community because they are priced out of safe neighborhoods.
Additionally, moving is expensive – even when the ‘military moves you’. Some rental properties require a security deposit and the first month of rent upon signing the lease. For example, if a military member is stationed in a higher cost-of-living area, this could mean that a military family needs to have $7000 in liquid assets to hand over to a property manager to even be able to secure reliable housing before the higher cost-of-living BAH hits the paycheck. That can be a tall order for some military families.
My friends who are in the military bought a home. If rent is so high and privatized military housing hazardous, why don’t more military families just buy a home where they are stationed? For some families, it makes financial sense to purchase a home at a duty station – especially if there is a strong possibility that they will be there for three-four years. We currently own two homes, neither of which we currently live in (read about how we became accidental landlords) and we’re not entertaining the idea of buying another house anytime soon. A lot military families are only stationed somewhere for 1-2 years…in these situations, purchasing a home most likely isn’t in the best financial interest in the family. And no – the military does not buy back your home if you are unable to sell it when you receive orders halfway across the world.
So how does this even happen? Doesn’t the military oversee housing? Actually no – the military does not oversee the majority of the housing on military installations. In 1996, Congress established the Military Housing Privatization Initiative in effort to help the military improve quality of life improving housing conditions. A lot of these communities are filled with homes that were built extremely fast with subpar materials that are inappropriate for harsh environmental conditions (e.g. humidity, wind, below-zero temperatures, etc…). As a result, the homes are not aging well and allowing hazards, like mold, to thrive. And because military families have no recourse, the privatized military housing executives continue to live lavishly at the expense of military families.
Tomorrow both the uniformed leaders and civilian leaders of our military will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee at 9:30am about the chain of command’s accountability to provide safe military housing (click here for details). I look forward to seeing what changes are on the horizon and remain hopeful that the military families with long-term effects from hazardous living conditions are given their proper due. As Bob Dylan reminds us – the times, they are a-changin’.