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May 23, 2019

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GUEST COLUMN:

Military families don’t deserve shoddy homes

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U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a town hall style gathering in Woburn, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018.

Nevada is home to more than 11,000 active duty service members, many of them in Clark County. Their duties include training the next generation of fighter pilots and air crews, and assisting with life-and-death rescue operations after natural disasters.

Recently, I had the chance to meet Brianne, the spouse of one of those service members in Las Vegas. Her husband, Nathan, is an active duty Air Force captain working as an emergency room physician assistant. They’ve given up a lot for our country, and their story has stuck with me for a particular reason.

Brianne told me about challenges the couple faced when they set out to transfer to a different house on the same base to live closer to their children’s school. They had fulfilled their one-year lease, were moving themselves and had decided to downsize to an older, smaller home.

But after learning that the housing company would charge them a $500 fee just to switch houses, Brianne and Nathan were forced to move off base. She told me they were fortunate enough to be able to bear the costs, but spoke up because many families don’t have that option. Unfortunately, Brianne and Nathan’s story is all too familiar. As I meet with veterans and military families around the country, I hear similar reports and even worse — toxic mold and lead paint, faulty wiring, collapsed ceilings, kids getting sick. And when families report their concerns to their command, they’re often greeted with a shrug. Because of the way housing contracts are written, there is little a local base commander can do.

In the mid-1990s, the Pentagon realized it had a problem: After decades of neglect, its family housing was in desperate need of modernization. But there was no money to pay for renovations. To make ends meet, the Pentagon offered private developers substantial loan guarantees and other incentives to take over its housing operations. It was a good deal — for the private developers.

Over the past 20 years, a handful of companies have taken over 99% of domestic military family housing, acting as the landlord on military bases. Every month, the federal government pays them rent directly out of a service member’s paycheck, along with various bonuses and incentive fees. The risk is low, and the profits are enormous. But this has turned out to be a lousy bargain for the approximately one-third of military families — about 700,000 people — who live in these homes. Instead of maintaining and repairing the properties, some private developers cut corners in pursuit of short-term profits.

For its part, the Pentagon failed to conduct any meaningful oversight, repeatedly shelling out performance bonuses and ignoring the warning signs. Military families were left on their own to suffer the consequences.

My three older brothers served, so I know the responsibility we have to our service members, veterans and their families. The sacrifices they make are significant — constant moves, repeated deployments, missed holidays and family events. When we fail to provide them with a safe place to live, we have broken our promise to them.

I have a plan to improve military housing and protect our military families from abuse. It starts with accountability, and it’s pretty simple. A private developer should not receive bonuses paid with taxpayer dollars if it fails to meet the terms of its contract. And if a developer repeatedly fails in its obligation to our military families, that contract should be terminated. Under my plan, every base would have a housing office staffed with advocates for the service member. That office would have independent authority to inspect housing to ensure it is safe, clean and meets all state and local requirements.

Military tenants deserve the same protections as their civilian counterparts. My plan requires that military families get a “bill of rights,” in writing, when they move in. The first of those rights is that families can withhold payment for landlords who don’t play by the rules.

Second, if repairs are needed, the work order cannot be closed until the service member approves. And if relocation is required, a service member should be able to move off base without penalty.

Let’s create a Yelp for military housing — one standardized public database of complaints and resident satisfaction surveys across the military services. This way, every military family can make an informed choice about where to live when they move.

Lastly, we should provide ongoing care for anyone — service member or dependent — who was harmed by exposure to toxins in a home provided to them by the U.S. government. My plan would establish a health registry for service members and families, and track medical conditions acquired as a result of unsafe housing. This is particularly important for our littlest ones, who can suffer the impacts of exposure to toxins for a lifetime.

This is not complicated. It’s not even a close call. No matter where they are stationed, the very least we owe our military personnel is a safe, affordable place to live.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has served in the Senate since 2013 and is a Democratic candidate for president in 2020.