The Army is about halfway through a five-year, $2.8 billion family housing improvement plan. And leaders say they are determined to get it right with aggressive oversight of Army private-sector housing partners and an ear to the ground in the service’s residential communities.
The activity is happening on 49 installations where housing was privatized more than 20 years ago under the DoD Military Housing Privatization Initiative. The Army’s Residential Communities Initiative (RCI) was a public-private venture that would take the Army out of the business of managing its own housing and provide better management, swift services and cost savings.
It was a promising beginning, but over time, as the size of the Army—and budgets—fluctuated and the wars kicked off in the Middle East, issues began brewing at home. With quality of life in garrison on the back burner, complaints of sickness from mold, lead paint and other health and safety issues in privatized housing worsened and went unattended.
In hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2019, angry and tearful family members listed their grievances, and committee members grilled leaders from the Army and its sister services about housing conditions.
Since then, leaders have listened, and changes have taken place. Garrison commanders have received training on how to respond to issues in Army family communities, the Army is launching mobile apps for families to track work orders, and a Tenant Bill of Rights was signed and published a year ago.
A new Quality of Life Task Force, led by a three-star general, tracks issues relating to Army housing, health care, child care, household moves and spouse employment across the force. Those priorities were identified by families as top concerns in multiple town halls and surveys.
As he took the service’s top job in August 2019, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville announced that people are his top priority, and the Army’s top leaders are engaged, pushed by the glare of a public spotlight and pressure from families and Congress.
Much has been set in motion. Military family advocates, who field complaints from across the services and spearheaded the effort to go public with the problems, say what the Army is doing “is a start.”
“It’s a culture change, and culture change always takes time,” said Kelly Hruska, director of government relations at the National Military Family Association. She pointed out that representatives from the association attended hearings more than 20 years ago when Congress was considering the privatization option.
“Our association said, 20 plus years ago, the services cannot wash their hands of housing, and what happened was, they did,” she said, adding that the key is to ensure installation commanders are families’ main advocates and stick to the Tenant Bill of Rights.
In testimony on March 7, 2019, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, then-Army Secretary Mark Esper said the Army’s transition to the RCI in 1998 “marked a dramatic improvement” for soldiers and families. He acknowledged it was a course of action that assumed contractors, with Army oversight, would do well.
“In too many cases, it is clear the private housing companies failed to uphold their end of the bargain, a failure that was enabled by the Army’s insufficient oversight,” Esper said.
The Army owns about 10,000 family housing quarters, the majority of which are overseas in Europe and Asia. In the U.S., 98% of the Army’s housing inventory, or 87,133 housing units, is privatized, and about 30% of families live on-post, according to the U.S. Army Installation Management Command.
The family hearings and testimony from Army senior leaders led to a cascading sequence of events. There were visits by the secretary, chief of staff and sergeant major of the Army to installations across the country, meetings with the heads of the privatized housing companies, town hall meetings with garrison commanders and residents, establishment of housing hotlines and orders across the board for a top-to-bottom review of the state of housing.
By mid-March 2019, more than 19,000 home screenings had taken place, and several hundred families had been relocated to temporary quarters, Esper testified. The Army developed tracking systems for work orders and new ways for residents to communicate with the housing companies and garrison leadership, and Esper promised a Tenant Bill of Rights that would be created with the other services.
Esper pledged the Army would “get back involved in the housing business,” citing the complaints heard repeatedly at town halls of poor customer service, a lack of transparency with work orders, and lack of accountability for deficient and dangerous conditions ignored by the housing companies.
Shortly after the hearings, Installation Management Command became a subordinate command under the U.S. Army Materiel Command, and the drive to get soldiers and families out from under the gloom of poor housing conditions took on an aggressive operational tempo.
“Quite frankly … both the Army and our RCI partners kind of took our eye off the ball,” said Lt. Gen. Doug Gabram, commander of Installation Management Command, which oversees all Army facilities, including housing. “I know that [phrase] has been used a little bit before, but it’s true.”
Gabram, who has been at the helm of IMCOM since January 2020, said, “What’s important was we came together very quickly,” and with the weight of senior leadership behind the effort, “we got after it.”
“[We] very deliberately, very quickly developed an action plan and held each other accountable … and since that time, I would tell you, I believe we have completely turned it around in terms of communication, relationships effects and output,” Gabram said.
The Army and private housing companies are investing $2.8 billion for Army housing over the next five years for 3,800 new homes and nearly 18,000 renovations of Army homes at installations across the country. An additional $9 billion is being invested through 2030 on barracks and child development centers.
“We want to make sure we have quality barracks,” McConville said in a family forum in October at AUSA Now, the virtual Annual Meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army. “It’s going to take some time, but we are committed to making that happen.”
The big push is to demolish or completely remodel legacy houses built before 1978 when lead paint was discontinued. Many of these houses are at posts that were identified as top priorities for improvements to quality of life for soldiers and families. They are Fort Polk, Louisiana; Fort Wainwright, Alaska; Fort Irwin, California; and Fort Hood, Texas, a recent addition targeted for housing improvements.
Older, historic houses at posts such as Fort Benning, Georgia, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, were difficult to upgrade because of their historic property designations. State historic preservation laws prohibited use of materials other than original materials used to build the homes.
Through a series of waivers, the Army is now able to retrofit these historic houses for electricity and plumbing and remodel things like window frames and front porch columns with modern materials that replicate the original. This saves time and money, and the new materials will last longer.
Residents also have two new ways to submit and check on work orders. An app launched in August called Digital Garrison already has more than 70,000 users who can navigate to Army links and resources such as events calendars, services and facilities.
Within the app, users can link to www.armymaintenance.com, a web-based application where residents can submit work orders, track their status and get notified when work is complete. They can submit pictures, get instructions for do-it-yourself repairs, communicate with housing managers and garrison personnel, and give feedback.
The site was tested in a pilot program at the end of 2020 and was expected to be ready for use in early 2021.
Garrison commanders and command sergeants major, who wear the Materiel Command patch, have a better understanding of building codes, quality assurance and control, and contractor oversight. They hold quarterly town hall meetings on-post and attend weekly virtual meetings with Gabram on a rotating schedule.
In the meetings, Gabram said, he gets detailed reports on ground-level issues like water leaks, water seepage, mold issues, updates on construction and repairs and on the number of temporarily displaced families. In December, he said, that number was down to 20 families who were housed in hospitality suites on-post while repairs were made to their homes.
“We also talk about development plans that are ongoing and that are going to happen in the out years, incentive fee metrics, budgets. So, we go to the tactical level with displaced families, and then we go to the strategic level with our RCI partners,” Gabram said.
Gabram added that he reports all that information to Gen. Edward Daly, commander of Materiel Command, every six weeks.
Calling it “a marriage where divorce is not an option, but counseling is,” Gabram said the biggest change to come out of the housing uproar has been a new, higher level of communication between the RCI partners, garrison commanders and senior leadership.
Cautiously optimistic, Hruska noted that improvements have been made, but said, “It’s just going to take time.”
“These problems have been developing over 20 years. They’re not going to be solved overnight, but we don’t want them to take 20 years to solve them,” Hruska said. “The services have acknowledged that they dropped the ball on this, and they have taken steps to correct it, but we can’t get complacent. They have got to continue to beat the drum.”