Pentagon Chief Sidesteps Question on Privatized Barracks Oversight During Congressional Testimony

April 10, 2024
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, foreground, and Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provide testimony at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of Defense’s fiscal 2025 budget request and Future Years Defense Program at the Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stressed the need to invest in housing when pressed Tuesday on how the Pentagon will ensure that any privatized barracks are not plagued with the same problems as privatized military family housing.

Appearing at a wide-ranging Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Austin was asked by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., about how proposals to privatize barracks will avoid the same issues that family housing has faced.

Austin did not directly answer the question about oversight plans for future privatization efforts, but rather touted the Pentagon’s fiscal 2025 budget request. Specifically, Austin highlighted that the Pentagon is asking Congress for $1.1 billion to build new barracks, $2 billion to build and maintain government-controlled family housing, and $171 million to conduct oversight of privatized family housing.

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“We, No. 1, have to invest in making sure that we create the right kind of unaccompanied housing for our troops, and then, No. 2, we have to make sure that we invest in the resources required to supervise the maintenance of these facilities, and we’re doing both of those,” Austin said. “There’s a lot of work we need to do going forward, and we’re investing in the right things, and we’ll continue to keep maintaining emphasis on this.”

Government watchdog reports and news stories over the last year have documented decrepit living conditions for the military’s junior service members. The barracks they are required to live in have been beset by mold, pest infestations and overflowing sewage, among other disgusting conditions.

Amid heightened public and lawmaker scrutiny of the barracks, military officials have promised to invest more into troops’ living conditions. The Army, which owns the vast majority of the military’s barracks, alone has proposed spending $2.35 billion to build, renovate and modernize barracks in fiscal 2025.

But military officials have also suggested the multitude of problems with the barracks may be too numerous and costly for them to handle on their own and have begun to mull the idea of privatizing barracks.

Army officials have been plotting a pilot project for privatized barracks at Fort Irwin in California, and wider privatization was one of few concrete ideas that came out of an Army barracks summit last year.

But the military’s privatized family housing has dealt with its own scandalously dilapidated conditions in recent years.

Military families in privatized housing have also frequently reported issues with mold, rodent infestations, crumbling plumbing and shoddy wiring. One of the biggest companies in military privatized housing, Balfour Beatty Communities, also pleaded guilty to fraud in 2021 on charges related to the conditions of its housing.

Army officials have previously sought to address concerns about expanding privatization to barracks by promising not to work with companies that have been problematic in the past. They have also suggested the Tenant Bill of Rights that Congress created to address the privatized family housing issues could apply to privatized barracks.

A couple of lawmakers have expressed cautious support for the idea of privatized barracks, but questions such as Gillibrand’s on Tuesday suggest lingering distrust over the issues with family housing could be a roadblock to any privatization proposals.

Housing conditions and proposed fixes are also anticipated to be a focus of a report the House Armed Services Committee’s bipartisan military quality-of-life panel is expected to release in the coming days.

Related: Army Eyes Privatized Barracks as It Struggles to Find a Solution to Poor Living Conditions for Soldiers

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