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Report: Over Half Of Military Families Dissatisfied With Privatized Housing

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There was some worry the Pentagon might divert funds from military housing for the wall. Pentagon officials have made it clear they will not do this. Still, the issue of substandard housing on bases got new attention this week when military spouses testified before Congress about shocking conditions in their homes. And a new survey showed widespread dissatisfaction with privatized military housing, where 20 to 30 percent of military families live. Reporter Howard Altman with the Tampa Bay Times has been talking to military families at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. They told him some awful stories about housing conditions.

HOWARD ALTMAN: People talking about having mushrooms growing in their houses, having rodents crawling through the roof, air conditioning systems that are full of mold. There are respiratory issues. People get hospitalized. There are people with rashes, growths. And, in addition to having the problems, they complain about not being able to have a quick enough response when they reach out to the privatized housing officials.

MARTIN: You'd mentioned privatized housing. There was a report that came out on Wednesday. It was a survey of nearly 17,000 military families. More than half said that they were dissatisfied with their privatized housing. Now, you mentioned that. How does privatized housing work?

ALTMAN: Well, back in the mid-'90s, the military saw they had a huge problem in their housing - that it was in such bad condition that it would take about $20 billion and several decades to fix. So they turned to private contractors to come in to build housing, manage the housing. And, at the time, it seemed like a good idea. The military is not really in the business of housing people, per se. they're in the business of providing security for the nation.

MARTIN: I guess in the private sector, if you were dissatisfied with the conditions, and you were renting housing, you wouldn't pay the rent, right? So is that - that's not something that they can do.

ALTMAN: That is not something they can currently do. They have an allocation out of their pay. It's called the basic allowance for housing. And that goes to the privatized housing companies. And if there's a dispute, they cannot just say, well, we're going to put our rent in escrow, and let's work this out with a third-party mediator. They are stuck. And you talk to folks here at MacDill, they've had to shell out thousands of dollars to move out and be penalized several months of their housing allowance. In some cases, that's $4,400. And that's a lot of money for people.

MARTIN: So wait a minute - I don't think I understand it. So you're saying - does the rent come directly out of their paychecks?

ALTMAN: That is correct. And that's one of the big issues.

MARTIN: So you mentioned that there were these two hearings. We just talked about this. There were these two hearings into the problem this week. How did Pentagon officials respond?

ALTMAN: They had four officials from the Pentagon who were there, and they responded by taking a level of responsibility. And I particularly concentrated on the Air Force. And John Henderson, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for facilities, had a great deal of sympathy for the idea that there should be perhaps something called a tenant's bill of rights for these military families to give them more ability to deal with recalcitrant landlords and all the problems that they're facing.

MARTIN: Is there a sense that this could affect force readiness?

ALTMAN: Absolutely. I had two senior enlisted leaders in MacDill come forward. And they talk about how when you're downrange, and you're - have to concentrate on your job - you're in Afghanistan, you're in Syria, you're someplace where it's deadly and dangerous. And, all of a sudden, you get a call from home, and your spouse is saying that mushrooms are growing in the carpeting, the kids are sick with cough, there's black mold all over the place. Then, all of a sudden, you're not thinking so much about what you have to do in a very dangerous situation. You're thinking about your family. And so that is a definite issue of readiness.

MARTIN: That was Howard Altman. He is a reporter with the Tampa Bay Times.

Howard, thanks so much for talking to us.

ALTMAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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