WASHINGTON — After our months-long investigation into unsafe living conditions reported by military families at bases around the country, the Channel 2 Action News Washington News Bureau spoke one-on-one with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) about efforts underway to better protect military families.
We told you how our investigation revealed some military families have been asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement to have housing problems like mold, sewage, and infestations of bugs resolved through a dispute resolution process with the private housing companies that operate homes on military bases.
“You better believe I want these contractors in front of me to explain how it is that they think that they have the right to do this,” Warren said.
Our investigation then led Warren and a group of Senators to send a letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in December calling for the DoD to stop the use of the NDAs.
“These nefarious practices are not consistent with the law, prevent housing providers from being held fully accountable for their failures, and put military families at risk – and the Department of Defense (”DoD” or “the Department”) must put an end to their use,” the letter said that was signed by Warren as well as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA).
So far, the Defense Department has not yet provided a response to the letter.
Channel 2 Washington bureau reporter Samantha Manning asked Warren what steps she will take if the DoD does not make a sweeping change to stop the use of NDAs in privatized military housing.
“Then I’ll look at it legislatively,” Warren said. “I will go to the full committee of the Senate Armed Services Committee and ask them to put legislation in place to stop the non-disclosure agreements but also to tighten down on making certain that these housing contractors are really delivering what the U.S. taxpayer is paying.”
Warren was recently named Chair of the Senate Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel and said her priorities include making sure military families have access to safe housing.
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It’s a concern the Republican Ranking Member, Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), also said is a major focus for the subcommittee.
“As Ranking Member on the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee for Personnel, I am looking forward to working with my colleagues to come to solutions that have a direct positive impact on the brave men and women who have sacrificed so much for our great country and their families that support that mission each and every day,” Scott said.
Since our story first aired around six months ago, our Washington News Bureau has spoken with military spouses at different bases around the country all dealing with similar unsafe living conditions.
Some families have said they have reported problems like mold, only to then be transferred to another home on base that also has mold or other unsafe living conditions.
In many cases, these military families cannot afford to move off base.
“What needs to be done to better hold these housing companies accountable so that they’re not just repeating this cycle of placing these families in unsafe homes?” Manning asked Warren.
“That goes to the quality of the stock of housing overall,” said Warren. “What we need is to inspect all of the housing stock and make sure that it all meets or exceeds quality housing in the region.”
Manning asked Warren about concerns from military spouses about what’s known as the Military Privatized Housing Initiative Tenant Bill of Rights, which was released in 2021.
The purpose of the tenant bill of rights is to protect the rights of military families residing in homes operated by private housing companies.
We told Warren about concerns from military spouses who say the tenant bill of rights lacks teeth to hold the companies accountable and that it doesn’t have enough specificity.
One example includes a part in the document that addresses property management services.
The tenant bill of rights says the landlord must “meet or exceed industry standards,” but it does not specify what those standards are, leaving some families at odds with the housing companies over whether certain health and safety concerns have been properly addressed.
“Working with the families, we drafted a tenant bill of rights,” Warren said. “Now, we’re getting some experience and we’re finding out where the holes and the gaps are. So, I’m going to go back to the tenant bill of rights and work to tighten it up and also look for other ways in the statute that we can bring more pressure to bear.”
Manning asked Warren if there will be a point where the military should step in and terminate the contracts with some of the privatized housing companies.
“Yes,” Warren said. “If there comes a point when there are enough violations, when there’s enough resistance to making change, that we just have to pull the pin and say we’re done.”
Manning asked what it will take to get to that point to terminate the housing contracts since many military families say we are already there.
“I understand their frustration,” Warren said. “I think partly this is going to be about trying to pull the pieces apart and see how much the problem is confined to one or two contractors. How much it’s spread throughout the system… If we can’t see a really steep curve in terms of fixing those problems, then I want to talk to the Department of Defense about terminating the contracts.”
We asked Warren about potential upcoming hearings in the Senate committee about these housing concerns.
“I’ll be bringing in the Department of Defense officials to ask them what they are doing,” Warren said. “They have primary responsibility for making sure that these contracts are carried out… I also want to hear from these contractors, and I don’t intend to let go of them.”
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