By Paul Lara, Belvoir EagleDecember 5, 2019
Ryan McCarthy, the Army secretary; and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine visited Fort Belvoir Monday to hear from residents. The visit was in preparation for Tuesday's Senate Armed Services Committee update on privatized housing and ongoing reports by military leadership of substandard housing conditions and services. After visiting with two Families, McCarthy and Kaine briefed members of the press.
McCarthy said the privatized housing initiative, over the last 25 years, has brought a lot of opportunity and a lot of outside investment to re-capitalize on-post housing, which was badly needed, at the time.
"But, over the course of the last 10 years, at times, we've abdicated our responsibilities as an Army. What we needed to do was be much more aggressive in managing the partnership," he said.
"Over the last 10 months, the Army's reorganized itself, and put Installation Management Command under a 4-star commander, General Gus Perna; delegated the appropriate authorities to general Perna and his garrison commanders, so they can hold partners accountable; reinserted the chain of command, so they can be responsible and help manage the health and welfare of their Soldiers and their Families. A lot of work has been done, but we have a long way to go," McCarthy said.
"I was here earlier in the year, and visited two families in two very different neighborhoods," said Kaine. "Today, different neighborhoods still, but the problems remain and the problems are severe."
Kaine referenced continued efforts by families to repeatedly call to get inspections in the home for suspected life, health and safety problems; and how remediation was inadequate when the work was performed.
Bringing enforcement tools
Kaine said the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act should be ready for a vote this month. According to the committee's executive summary, the bill takes meaningful steps to address serious issues with military privatized housing, including:
• Improving quality of life for Service members and their families living in privatized military housing by creating a Tenant Bill of Rights, setting up a dispute resolution process, and increasing oversight
• Holding private military housing companies accountable by instating new quality assurance and control measures and increasing health and hazard inspections
• Strengthening management of military housing by providing an additional $301.8 million to ensure each installation has the necessary government housing personnel to implement thorough oversight and planning measures.
Kaine admitted there are challenges, but noted that if the NDAA passes, the reforms put into place become law.
"That will give the military significantly more tools to use in exercising oversight over the housing partners. The military has already started to do some good work. Part of this abdication in the past was the incentive payments that were just being paid to the contractors, even if they weren't doing a good job," he said.
McCarthy agreed, and said business is about incentives, and that those incentives need realignment.
"The formula for incentives has to align to the outcomes you want. You have to put business systems in place to manage and oversee the progress -- a lot of that wasn't there," the secretary said. "Over the last 9 months, we've developed these; we've delegated the appropriate authorities to drive towards the outcomes you want. There's physics involved to see whether or not they work. In the event they don't work, we'll make those changes."
"I would say the message to residents is that the pain you're experiencing in your own life -- and especially with your kids and your Families -- is making a big impression on us," Kaine added. "The reforms we're making stem directly from the conversations you're having with us, and so you need to keep communicating, so we can know whether they're working or not, or whether we need to do different things."
Kaine said one of his provisions in the NDAA is a 100 percent, no-excuse standard, for a checklist of transitioning homes between families -- something that garrison leadership has already established on Belvoir.
"The other thing that's going to be absolutely critical is the continued involvement of military families and letting us know what the issue is," Kaine noted. "(Belvoir Garrison commander) Colonel Greenberg and I were talking about a Belvoir family housing network of about 350 people on Facebook that share stories. One of the families we met with today said, 'we wouldn't have known what to do with our problem, had we not talked to one of the members of this informal advocacy group and they helped walk us through what we needed to do.'"
"We're going to continue to need our military Families and organizations coming to hearings and raising this issue before us -- that's why we're getting some of the progress we're getting, because of the push we're getting from these military families. We need to thank them for that, because they'll keep us on task."
McCarthy said new processes will take time to put in place and formalize, and may take weeks or months, in some cases, to change.
"That's a tough place to be when you're displaced and you're living in a hotel. We know that, and that's what's hard about this … the physics involved with making these changes, and why I keep coming back to the senator's comment -- a day feels like a week when you're in that situation," McCarthy said. "We're trying to move as quickly as we can, but we won't know for a little while until we have the opportunity to evaluate those adjustments and whether or not it's made the changes we expect."