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A Preliminary Look at the Ensuring Safe Housing for Our Military Act

By: Casey Hare-Osifchin

Protecting the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of those who fight for our nation is critical to the strength of our military. One of the most integral pieces of ensuring this is achieved is through providing a stable household. According to scholars James Krieger, MD, MPH and Donna L. Higgins, PhD, “[a]n increasing body of evidence has associated housing quality with morbidity from infectious diseases, chronic illnesses, injuries, poor nutrition, and mental disorders.”

Recently, it has come to light that housing is woefully inadequate for many military families throughout the country. Though this issue is only now getting press, many families have been experiencing this for years. In front of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee, military families told stories of their experiences in private military housing, including pest infestation and mold growth that led to hospitalization. They also detailed “unresponsive housing companies and a fear of reprisal if complaints are taken up the servicemembers’ chain of command.”

In the wake of this, the Ensuring Safe Housing for Our Military Act, H.R. 1792, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA), has been introduced in Congress. It is currently under consideration with the U.S. House Armed Services Committee. While the text of the proposed bill is not available, Representative Levin provides a summary of the bill’s highlights. These highlights include (1) the right of the installation commander to withhold payment to the third party until inspection and remediation is undertaken and if relocation cost is necessary, the housing company is to pay the costs; (2) ensuring that deposits and penalty fees aren’t paid for ending a lease early, with the exception of normal wear and tear and requires reimbursement to service members for damage to their personal property due to a housing hazard; (3) requires withholding of incentive fees to contractors who persistently fail to provide remedies; (4) creates health, safety, and environmental inspector credential standards; (5) requires the DoD to establish a work order tracking system for use by service members.

This bill appears to be a huge step in the right direction, though it does fall a bit short of ensuring the same rights for service members as civilians enjoy in their housing. Typically, civilians leasing property have the benefit of the implied warranty of habitability. “[T]he warranty conditions a tenant’s duty to pay rent on the landlord’s duty to maintain a habitable living space.” Members of the military living in PPV (Public Private Venture, or privatized military housing) do not necessarily benefit from this warranty because housing costs are paid directly out of their BAH (basic allowance for housing) to the housing companywithout ever hitting their account. While the Service Members Civil Relief Actprotects the service members in housing leases generally, it does not touch issues of inadequate housing. It allows service members to end leases with the assignment of new duty stations and also restricts eviction for service members and their families while on deployment, but mentions nothing about issues of habitability.

While the proposed bill allows the installation commander to withhold payment, it does not necessarily state that it allows the tenant to keep the money that would otherwise have been paid to the housing company. Further, this system would then likely take the decision away from the tenant and place it in the commander’s hands. This may cause hesitation, difficulty, and delay in ensuring proper housing for the service member. While it appears that service members could report their living conditions to their commander, it would then place the final decision to withhold funds in the hands of a commander who does not live in that household. This plan ignores the fears of reprisal voiced at the hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee.

Ensuring that the members of military remain healthy, physically and mentally, is essential to the success of our armed forces. The Ensuring Safe Housing for Our Military Act is a start to securing healthy and stable housing for our servicemen, though some gaps could still be addressed.

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