Privatized Barracks Would Get Deeper Look Under House's Draft Defense Bill

May 16, 2024
A lead mold remediation specialist at Fort Stewart shows where a barrack room's bathroom ceiling has mold.

As the military services flirt with the idea of privatizing more barracks to deal with deteriorating living conditions, a key House panel wants the Pentagon to study the issue more in depth.

In its draft National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, released this week, the House Armed Services Committee calls on the Pentagon to deliver a report to the committee by March 2025 that examines the “complexities” of contracting out barracks management to private companies.

“Members aren’t completely bought into privatizing all housing,” a senior Republican committee staffer told reporters at a briefing this week on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the committee. “There are problems with privatized housing, just like there are with service housing. So to turn it all over is something I don’t think the members are ready to do.”

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News stories and government watchdog reports over the last couple of years have detailed deplorable living conditions for the military’s most junior service members, who are typically required to live in barracks.

Mold, pest infestations and overflowing sewage, among other squalid conditions, have plagued barracks.

As the military services struggle to get the issues under control, privatization has been floated as a solution. Military.com reported in February that the Army is considering the idea, and a report released last month by a congressional panel that studied military quality-of-life issues revealed the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are also mulling privatized barracks.

The Army and Navy already have a small number of barracks run by private companies, but proponents of privatization envision it becoming widespread. Some lawmakers have offered a full-throated endorsement of privatization.

“I’ve encouraged every one of you that I’ve sat down with to look at privatization,” Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subpanel, said at a recent hearing with the vice chiefs for every service. “I want Marines focused on bullets on bad guys, not managing HVAC systems.”

But military family housing, the majority of which was handed over to private contractors in the 1990s, has had similar problems with mold, pests and other gross and dangerous living conditions in recent years.

Asked at a hearing last month about how the Pentagon would ensure that any privatized barracks are not plagued with the same problems as privatized military family housing, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sidestepped the question.

The study that the House committee’s NDAA would direct the Pentagon to undertake would have to look at lessons learned from previous privatized barracks contracts, including details such as performance metrics, compliance standards, duration, termination clauses, and any incentive or penalty structures.

It would also have to lay out the military services’ plans for potential privatized barracks projects; analyze the cost-effectiveness compared to military-owned barracks; and examine any legal, policy or budgetary barriers.

One hurdle with Congress approving any privatized barracks could be budgeting rules, committee staff said at the briefing. Signing a contract with a private housing company is considered what’s known as mandatory spending, which complicates Congress’ approval process.

“Members have talked about privatizing barracks for quite a while,” a senior Democratic committee staffer said. “But doing the full implementation of it, that’s one of the challenges.”

The committee is scheduled to debate its NDAA next week.

Related: Army’s Idea to Privatize Barracks Has Some Cautious Bipartisan Support on Capitol Hill

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