Several private companies that manage housing on military installations nationwide asked 98 families since 2019 to sign nondisclosure agreements as part of settlement disputes over mold, infestations and other dangerous living conditions in their on-base homes.
The companies' use of nondisclosure agreements, or NDAs, was revealed in a Defense Department response to a request from five U.S. senators asking for more details about the use of confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements with tenants.
According to the DoD, the NDAs were reviewed by the military services and, in "fewer than five cases," were determined to comply with laws that pertain to their usage. Those NDAs that didn't pass muster were revised, resubmitted and approved, according to documents provided by the Pentagon to Congress last week.
While the names of the companies that used the NDAs were redacted, at least one was The Michaels Organization military housing, which oversees homes at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, having purchased the management portfolio at that base from Clark Realty Capital, according to a footnote in the DoD response.
Others include Balfour Beatty Communities and Liberty Military Housing, according to a letter requesting answers on the use of NDAs by Military Private Housing Initiative companies sent by the five senators, including Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
Breanna Bragg, a military spouse who once lived on Fort Belvoir, shared the NDA she was offered with Orlando television station WFTV. According to the station, the agreement forbade the family from talking publicly about the alleged claims or making any pejorative statements about housing at Fort Belvoir to anyone, including current and future residents of the post as well as the news media.
"It's hush money," Bragg said. The family rejected the settlement, which she said was contingent on signing the agreement.
Widespread problems with construction and maintenance issues first came to light in 2018 in a series of reports by Reuters over the presence of mold, lead-based paint, pestilence and more in military housing.
Families have testified before Congress since 2019 on poor housing conditions, noting that the companies often ignored maintenance requests or took shortcuts in repairing their homes. Some families have filed lawsuits, with litigation ongoing in dozens of cases.
As a result of the scandal, the Defense Department developed a tenant bill of rights effective August 2021 that gave residents more leverage in negotiating disputes with the management companies, but it does not have the right to unilaterally require the companies to abide by the requirements.
As of October 2022, five Air Force installations had implemented the tenants' right to enter into a resolution process or be able to have their Basic Allowance for Housing payments held while disputes were being resolved.
Ongoing concern about the use of NDAs by companies that manage military housing prompted Warren and colleagues to send their letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The answers Warren received earlier this month left her less than satisfied.
"I remain concerned that the Department of Defense is not conducting adequate oversight to determine whether these NDAs are being used appropriately," Warren said in a statement to Military.com on Monday. "Safe housing is a basic right, and military housing companies shouldn't be able to stop families from exposing when those companies have failed them."
The housing companies maintain that they are allowed by law to use NDAs and the agreements comply with relevant regulations.
"Current law allows for the use of nondisclosure agreements as part of the settlement of litigation or when a resident has retained counsel or sought military legal assistance," officials at Liberty Military Housing said in a statement emailed Thursday to Military.com. "In addition, no LMH resident has ever been asked or required to sign a NDA in connection with entering into, continuing, or terminating a lease for the housing unit."
In an emailed response to Military.com, officials with Balfour Beatty Communities said that the company uses NDAs only "in the context of a settlement and release agreement where the resident is agreeing to resolve a dispute that is considered pending/threatened litigation," and the company complies with the law that "explicitly permits" their use.
"We enter into a small number of settlement agreements each year which include nondisclosure provisions regarding the settlement amount. In every case, we get written approval from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and we comply fully with all the requirements in the [National Defense Authorization Act]," a Balfour Beatty spokesperson said.
They added that there are no restrictions imposed on military families that live on installations who aren't involved in potential litigation or disputes.
The Michaels Organization did not respond to a request for comment by publication.
Warren has said that if the Pentagon does not increase oversight of the companies' use of NDAs, she will push for legislation that would bar their use.
Some families complain that they have chronic illnesses related to having lived in unsanitary and poor conditions. A DoD Inspector General investigation conducted last year into the types of health conditions related to military housing was inconclusive, however, because the Pentagon lacks the data it needs to track such issues.
As a result, the IG was unable to link housing conditions and any reported illnesses.
Earlier this month, Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., joined Florida Republican Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio in launching a bipartisan investigation into the health effects of housing conditions on families.
The senators wrote Austin on March 21 asking the Pentagon to take actions to monitor the state of privatized housing units.
"Due to this lack of information, the military services were unable to consistently track housing conditions that may have led to asthma, lead poisoning, cancers, and other adverse conditions among service members and their families," they wrote.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime