Military families in South Carolina and across the nation have complained about shoddy privatized housing on base, and a new audit shows the Pentagon may have contributed to the woes.
The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill where leaders from the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy were asked why they didn't adequately oversee private companies that provided substandard housing for military families across the nation, including at five installations in the Palmetto State.
Findings from the Government Accountability Office released during the hearing showed that overall resident satisfaction across the military in 2017 was 87 percent.
But the watchdog also found that the Pentagon's results were "unreliable and may be misleading due to variances in the data the military departments collect."
The number was likely lower, military leaders said during their testimony.
"There is a lack of reliable or consistent data on the condition of privatized housing; and past DOD reports to Congress on resident satisfaction are unreliable due to inconsistent handling and calculation of the data," the report states.
By comparison, a nationwide study by the nonprofit Military Family Advisory Network surveyed nearly 17,000 current and former military members who had lived in on-base housing in the past three years. At least 55 percent of respondents had poor experiences.
Nearly 200 complaints, including from Joint Base Charleston and Parris Island, stated concerns with overpriced rent, mold and lead-based paint were submitted to the Military Family Advisory Network.
In 1996, the military shifted ownership of more than 200,000 family housing units on bases to private real estate developers and property managers under 50-year contracts. Now, 99 percent of domestic military housing is privatized.
But the private companies fell short on their end of the bargain with the Department of Defense and complaints became more rampant. A flood of media reports from national outlets revealed retaliation, falsification of work orders and even non-disclosure agreements from the companies to keep tenants from reporting to their base command.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked during the hearing why there were not criminal charges being filed against the companies through the Department of Justice. Military leaders said they have flagged some cases but have not proceeded with criminal charges.
Rachel Christian, a former Army wife who has dealt with housing woes, attended the hearing. Through the grassroots Military Housing Advocacy Network, she brought 25 other spouses.
"I feel like they're heading in the right direction," Christian said. "But these are violations of federal law. It's a good to see that politicians are still paying attention."
Residents often turn to their branch's on-base command or housing authority for help. But the hearing revealed that the military didn't do all they could to help families.
The report states that "interior walk-throughs may have been limited to just a few housing units at each installation" on many bases and that the military "had generally decreased their staffing and oversight of daily privatized housing operations." This has led to confusion for many families about who they can turn to for help.
For example, in May, the Army inspector general reported to the secretary of the Army that at 82 percent of Army installations with privatized housing, residents did not know how to inform the private housing provider or the branch's housing office about their issues.
The hearing follows an extensive look at privatized housing by The Post and Courier earlier this year. Base leaders in the Palmetto State have said that they've increased resources and have held town halls to educate residents on how to file complaints.
Top military leaders have discussed the potential for a bill of rights that would allow service members to withhold rent through a neutral party when problems are not addressed and establish effective communication between contractors and tenants.
Shannon Razsadin, a Navy spouse and the executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, said expedient work needed to be done.
"We need a tenant bill of rights," Razsadin said. "It has gone on too long. To think that military families are spending the holidays in a hotel or temporary housing is heartbreaking."
This week, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to have a hearing with CEOs from privatized housing companies.