Nominee to Be Military’s No. 2 Officer Voices Support for Housing Reforms

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The commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, appears at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, D.C., July 30, 2019. (Lisa Ferdinando/DoD Photo)
The commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, appears at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, D.C., July 30, 2019. (Lisa Ferdinando/DoD Photo)

An ongoing crisis in military housing was briefly addressed this week during the confirmation hearing for Air Force Gen. John Hyten, nominee for vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Hyten appeared to welcome a question from Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, on the need to address the dilapidated and unsanitary conditions of housing for military families at many bases.

"I'm fully aware of those problems. I've seen those problems," he said.

"We actually have very good housing at Offutt Air Force Base [in Nebraska] where I live now" as head of U.S. Strategic Command, he said.

But "that is not the case in a large number of bases across the country," Hyten said at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.

He said that "when we started down this privatized housing path" back in the 1990s, "I really did not like the model we were putting in place. We were putting in a low-cost model, looking for low bidders to provide the housing that will take care of our families."

Hyten began to go into more detail, but was cut off by Tillis, who followed up with a budget question. The Committee on Wednesday voted 20-7 in favor of sending Hyten's nomination to the full Senate.

Hyten was the latest top official to single out problems in the contracting and maintenance of military housing and pledge corrective action. All the military services leaders have voiced support for reform following a Reuters investigative series last year detailing poor conditions and health risks in privatized housing.

Then-Army secretary Mark Esper heard from military families at a town hall meeting at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on the problems with lead paint, roaches and mold.

"I'd said the problems are unconscionable. There's no reason our soldiers and their families should live in the conditions they've lived in," Esper, now secretary of defense, said at a news conference after meeting with the families.

In February, Esper and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley ordered all installations to hold town hall meetings on housing conditions and carry out inspections for families who requested them.

At his Senate confirmation hearing last month, and at his welcoming ceremony at the Pentagon, Esper said that improving military housing and the lives of military families across the services was one of his "personal priorities."

Last week, the Army and the Navy released separate surveys showing a decline in satisfaction rates with housing among military families.

The Army survey showed a satisfaction rate decline on a 100-point scale from 80.5 points to 74.6 points; the Navy survey showed an overall satisfaction rate decline of 11.6 points to 70.1 points.

In a release accompanying the Army survey, Gen. Gus Perna, commander of Army Materiel Command, renewed the commitment of the service to safe and secure housing.

"We are taking action to earn back the trust of our housing residents, and holding ourselves and privatized housing companies accountable to provide a high-quality standard of living," Perna said.

Esper's "keen focus" on housing conditions is welcome, but "families are still living in dangerous and difficult situations and there are immediate fixes that are needed," said Shannon Razsadin, executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) and a Navy spouse.

MFAN released its own survey in May on military housing, based on questionnaires from nearly 16,000 military family members at 160 installations nationwide.

Shelley Kimball, MFAN's senior research director and a Coast Guard spouse, said the MFAN survey differed from the recent Army and Navy surveys in that the MFAN survey focused more on the experiences of the families rather than the properties themselves.

From the responses to the survey, "nearly 800 people attributed deteriorated health to the environments in their homes," the summary of the MFAN survey said.

More than 1,500 said they experienced pest infestations, and more than 1,600 believed they were charged fees that were unwarranted. More than 700 said they have been treated unfairly when they tried to move out at the end of their leases, the survey summary said.

"It seems like there were lots of fixes on top of fixes without really getting at root problems," Razsadin said of the survey results.

Contractors appeared to rely on "Band-Aid" solutions, and military families ended up being "whipsawed between the military leadership and the housing companies to get issues resolved," she said.

We see the need for immediate fixes" as well as systemic changes that could include passage of a tenant bill of rights for military families, Razsadin said.

The problems with military housing were the result of "years of poor leadership and oversight" and an attitude among commanders to "let contractors do their own thing," said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association.

Military families too often "have to be advocates for themselves" to resolve issues, said Raezer, who will be retiring later this summer after more than 25 years with NMFA.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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