FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- Participants in the Army's inaugural Residential Communities Initiative Training Course praised U.S. Army Installation Management Command for using Army Housing professionals as instructors.

Hosted March 21 through 24 by the G4 Facilities and Logistics Housing division of the U.S. Army Installation Management Command, instructors from IMCOM garrisons, IMCOM Headquarters, and the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management covered the fundamentals of the Residential Communities Initiative, or RCI, privatized housing program.

The students included RCI-savvy veterans of Army Housing and Career Program 27 interns, and virtual rookies of the RCI program. After a week of classroom training, intensive reading, collaboration and networking with peers, 32 students and six instructors from across the Army left San Antonio as better connected Army Housing leaders.

"Doing the job and not really knowing my left and right limits, this kind of brought everything into perspective," said Lucien Sweetenberg, a retired Army Command Sergeant Major serving in a two-year internship at Fort Bliss, Texas. "It really enhanced my knowledge of knowing what I should be doing and things that the partner should or should not be doing.

"It's kind of overwhelming because it's a lot," Sweetenberg said after completing the course. "You come in with a 10 percent knowledge base, and the light comes on, but I think the best part was the collaboration -- learning how things are going from different installations. I have a huge network now of different people that I can call and see how they do at their installation, and knowing it's not a bad thing to call them."

RCI provides a vision for solving an old problem. Years of funding shortfalls and resource allocation decisions created a significant deterioration in the construction, repair and maintenance of housing. In the early 1990s, the Army had an $8-million backlog in maintenance and repair of its family housing with no sustainable plan or solution. Poor conditions of family housing was a contributing factor of good Soldiers leaving the Army.

In 1996, Congress passed the Military Housing Privatization Initiative Act that provided the military with alternative authorities for the management, construction and improvement of military housing and unaccompanied housing. The Army launched RCI to leverage private funds through partnerships to help stem the decline of infrastructure and improve Soldier and Family quality of life and retention in the all-volunteer Army.

Addressing the urgent infrastructure challenges brought on by a decade of underinvestment is IMCOM's top priority.

"I've been working with RCI here at Fort Sam Houston since we started," said Pat Baker, the RCI Asset Manager for Army Support Activity at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. "It is the best thing, in my opinion, for the military. I love working this program. I want to continue working this program for our Soldiers.

"Their mission is war fighting. Ours is taking care of those who are taking care of the rest of our country," Baker said. "We have Soldiers and Families that we have to take care of, so we're going to do what we need to do to make sure you have the knowledge and the information and the tools that you need to accomplish your mission."

Transformation and other challenges continue to require creative, innovative, and visionary solutions to the Army's infrastructure. Privatization provides mechanisms that challenge how the Army meets facility requirements and RCI personalizes those mechanisms with a clear set of goals and objectives.

For example, Pedro Saldana manages Army Housing at Camp Red Cloud, South Korea, in U.S. Forces Korea Area I, where all Soldiers receive hazardous duty pay because it borders North Korea. On June 30, 2016, Area I was declared a dependent-restricted area.

"We have families still there from 2008 that were command sponsored but once they PCS there's not going to be any more coming in, and that includes the DA Civilians who have Families in there," explained Saldana, a retired Army First Sergeant on his second tour of Korea as an Army Civilian. "By June 30 of this year, there's a possibility that families of DA Civilians will be sent home.

"Obviously, it's a very high risk area now," added Saldana, who served 24 years as an active duty artilleryman and now oversees more than 15,000 bed spaces of unaccompanied housing on six installations.

Back in the United States, IMCOM uses RCI to provide quality housing to Army Families and single Soldiers at 34 installations. The Army out-leases assets and land for 50 years with a 25-year option under a ground lease and transfers the ownership of housing and improvements to the RCI project company. For its other 33 mostly smaller installations and garrisons, IMCOM provides traditional Army Family Housing.

"The reason for going to RCI was to benefit Soldiers," said IMCOM Headquarters Housing Management Specialist Pamela Allen. "My preference is to give Soldiers the best housing available."

Yolanda Brown, the reigning Army Housing Executive of the Year from Fort Bliss, Texas, was the lead instructor for the four-day course.

"I think it's great that IMCOM decided to change over to having the facilitators be housing management careerists," Brown said. "Before, we had contractors, and they did a great job, as well, but just having the relationships with other housing managers to be able to say 'I do what you do every day so I understand and I can empathize with what you're going through and what you're doing' instead of just someone telling them, 'Hey, this is how you need to do it.' The contractors weren't doing the housing management every day like we are at the installations, so I think it's great that they switched over to housing professionals teaching other housing professionals."

"That's right, and it's not just us teaching them, but they're still teaching us," Brown said. "During these courses, we learn from each other. The give and take is great. We fix so many problems in those few minutes that we can just sit and talk to each other than all the research and hard work you can do at the installation by just getting a roomful of housing management professionals together."

RCI has completed new construction of nearly 35,000 homes and renovated 32,000 homes with continued capital repair, replacement, maintenance, and property management. The Family Housing end-state inventory is 86,077 homes by 2020, with an unaccompanied housing goal of 1,590 apartments.

With the split of OACSIM and IMCOM, the latter inherited 11 housing tasks, one of which was training. This was the first time IMCOM hosted and led the RCI Level I training at the College of Installation Management.

"This was probably the best course that I've ever attended as a housing professional," said Saldana, who has been working with traditional Army housing since 2008. "I didn't even know what RCI was until I got to this class. The material was presented in a very professional, and most importantly, a very understandable level of instruction. No one tried to use ambiguous terms, and they allowed us to ask questions. The other plus was the networking and the collaboration with different installations and different ways of doing the same thing. And something that you don't get from any other course: the camaraderie and the ability to interact and meet new folks."

Brown sensed that, as well.

"The most I got out of the course was the people, as far as the looks on their faces when they first walked in and took that first test and how stressed out everybody was," Brown concluded. "To the last day and them being able to tell me what the acronyms meant and that they were grateful that they learned some things and were able to take them back to the installation -- that is the most rewarding. It's just the look on their face and the confidence in their voice now that they feel they know more than what they knew when they first got here. Yeah, I think it went great."