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Commentary: Inadequate living conditions are a disservice to military families

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rosemary Williams formerly served as assistant secretary for Public & Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and deputy assistant secretary of defense for Military Community and Family Policy at the Department of Defense. She is on the Military Family Advisory Network's board of directors.

Black mold growing on walls. Insects falling from ceiling cracks. Bat infestation in attics. Sounds of rats at night. Raw sewage puddling on floors.

These are the living conditions some active-duty military members and their families are facing. They're also among hundreds of documented examples of health and safety violations in military family housing at more than 200 military installations across the country.

After more than ten years of living in unsafe conditions, military families are banding together to draw attention to the housing issues. They are forming grassroots coalitions such as the Safe Military Housing Initiative, which aims to highlight housing concerns and possible solutions.

Now, the Senate Armed Services Committee has the issue in its crosshairs with a Wednesday hearing.

A survey of military families that was prompted by a large number of reports from military spouses about unsafe conditions was released to Senate staffers and submitted for the record ahead of the hearing. The survey found an alarming 56 percent dissatisfaction rate among military families when it comes to their experiences with privatized housing.

Nearly 17,000 military families responded to the survey, which was conducted over a week from late January to early February. It allowed respondents to describe their living conditions.

"For months I couldn't sleep upstairs because the rats were playing in the attic all night," one military spouse in Hawaii reported in the survey, which was conducted by the nonprofit organization Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN). "I'd hear traps going off, and we dealt with flies from decaying rats in the attic when the exterminators were booked and couldn't come back to clean the traps."

Black mold in privatized military housing at Camp Pendleton in California. Photo courtesy Safe Military Housing Initiative via Rosemary Williams

Another military spouse from South Carolina reported lead exposure due to living conditions.

"After being denied several times, I ordered my own lead check test kit. When I tested the door and window, it came back positive," the spouse wrote.

"Later I decided to have my 6-month-old daughter's blood tested due to fears of lead exposure. She did indeed have lead exposure."

Military families can live in privatized housing -- on-base properties that are managed by companies in the private sector. Since 1996, the Department of Defense has contracted with private companies to provide housing on military bases through direct loans, loan guarantees and equity investments.  

Unlike housing for civilian families, military families in private housing have little or no recourse: rent cannot be withheld due to poor conditions, mismanagement or noncompliance with lease terms. Additionally, military families pride themselves on their resilience in any circumstance and are loathe to complain.

Critical fixes are needed to address military families' living conditions. Nothing else is acceptable for the families who serve our nation. Those fixes include:

  • Codifying military families' tenant rights with an easy-to-navigate process for appeal
  • Renegotiating or recompeting privatized housing contracts
  • Revisiting how housing contractors are incentivized
  • Having the Department of Defense partner with nonprofit organizations that prioritize military family interests

There is a saying in the DOD that the military recruits the service member and retains the family. The No. 1 factor that can potentially hinder the readiness of any active-duty service member is the welfare of his or her family.

Our active-duty military members make our nation's security their first priority. As a nation, we must make the health and safety of their families our priority.    

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