WASHINGTON — Concerns over the condition of military housing, including in the Army, have exploded into headlines in recent months.
A shocking September report from the watchdog Government Accountability Office detailed rampant problems in the barracks — mold, squatters, safety concerns, sewage overflows, lack of space, inadequate climate control and more.
On-base privatized housing for troops with families also suffers from oversight shortcomings that have proved difficult to overcome. The Army’s internal auditors concluded that 2020 housing policy reforms intended to make homes safer from lead-based paint and asbestos fell short due to ineffective oversight and confusion between housing officials and the companies administering the properties, according to a report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference, Army Times spoke with two of the service’s top quality of life officials — Installation Management Command’s Lt. Gen. Omar Jones and Army G-9 Lt. Gen. Kevin Vereen — about the Army’s plans to address those issues, as well as their progress on improving access to childcare.
Vereen, who led the Army’s Recruiting Command from 2020 through September 2022, emphasized the importance of quality of life measures for securing the Army’s future amid falling end strength numbers. “Supporting our soldiers and families where they live, work and train…that is a fundamental reason why we are going to be able to recruit and to retain our soldiers and families.”
Barracks boost coming?
In a Sept. 27 House Armed Services Committee quality of life hearing following the GAO barracks report, the Army’s deputy assistant secretary for installations, housing and partnerships, Carla Coulson, told lawmakers that “the report, frankly, was not news to the Army.” According to Jones, nearly one-in-five of the Army’s permanent party barracks buildings — meaning those reserved for soldiers stationed at the base — are currently rated as poor or unacceptable under the service’s four-tier rating system.
Lawmakers appear to have noticed the challenges the Army has faced with funding such work, too. Rep. Mark Alford, R-Mo., pressed Coulson for a price tag on fixing all of the barracks.
But Coulson — along with Jones and Vereen — seemed optimistic that a proposed $4 billion barracks resourcing strategy would increase sustainment funding to keep good barracks in top shape and bolster the service’s work to renovate and replace poor and failing condition facilities. The money would be in addition to the $1 billion per year that the service has already committed to barracks improvement projects.
“We can see that we have 300 permanent party barracks buildings that are in poor and failing shape,” Coulson told lawmakers. “Across our…[current pre-strategy budget plan] we can address 113 of those barracks buildings. But at the same time, if we don’t fully sustain, we’ll have 110 existing barracks buildings that will move from good or adequate into the poor and failing category.”
The barracks resourcing strategy recommends that the Army fund 100% of barracks’ sustainment needs in addition to ensuring the multi-billion dollar “generational investment in our barracks,” as Vereen described it, is put to good use. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, who drives the service’s budget requests, will make the final call, and Congress will decide whether to approve the funds.
Jones said the increase in sustainment funding, if approved, will help installation public works officials eliminate any deferred maintenance, be more responsive to new requests, and get ahead of the curve on stopping issues before they start.
“You will see increased effort and effectiveness and accomplishment of preventative maintenance because of that,” Jones added.
Privatized housing next?
But once the Army revitalizes its barracks, Coulson said, the next problem on the horizon is doing the same with “our privatized [housing] inventory that we struggle with.” Around 90,000 of the Army’s approximately 100,000 on-base homes around the world are administered by a private company as part of a public-private venture partnership at the installation level, Jones said.
The service faces a greater challenge to ensure the sustainment of existing homes, too, because it does not directly control their maintenance plans — the Army has an oversight role. The complexity of the decades-old agreements between the Army and the housing partners has increased the difficulty of updating oversight rules.
The Army Audit Agency found that 2020 oversight reforms intended to address environmental hazards in privatized homes have fallen short thus far. Army officials in garrison housing offices lacked standardized training to carry out their responsibilities, and the program couldn’t apply to the housing partners without consensual updates to legal agreements.
“In some cases, probably the cart got before the horse,” Vereen explained. “When you look at where most of our housing partners [and] management offices were, and how they were manned, I don’t think that we looked at their ability to be able to adhere to some of…the policy changes.”
In Vereen’s eyes, having trained personnel on both sides of the equation — larger company management offices and more soldiers in Army housing offices — will help both parties implement effective inspection regimes with proper oversight.
Jones, who interacts with the housing partners regularly as the general with overall responsibility for the service’s housing, said the recently implemented resident bill of rights is meant to “make sure that no soldier or family…[feels] unheard by the Army.” He highlighted the dispute resolution process, for which he serves as the final decision authority on formal complaints.
Both Jones and Vereen pointed to the childcare front as one where the Army has received significant assistance from lawmakers, but also as one where there is still a lot of work to complete.
In late 2022, Congress surged funding to build childcare centers for the Army and other services, putting them on track to meet many of their facilities’ needs. That included a desperately needed child development center at Camp Bull Simons, Florida, where 7th Special Forces Group families have struggled for years with inadequate access to the service.
But the enduring problem is one felt in the civilian sector as well: staffing.
Jones said the service’s daycare centers — often lauded for their low-cost, high-quality service — have come a long way from their pandemic-era employment nadir.
“Right now, our employment rate is approximately 80%…we were, in some cases, just over 50% coming out of the pandemic,” he said. But he wants to exceed the Army goal of 90% and reach full childcare staffing.
He and Vereen are focused on using (and advertising) expanded incentives for child center employees, which includes commissary benefits for those not already military-affiliated, as well as bonuses, free or discounted care for their own kids and more.
Vereen explained that staffing problems have led the Army to place enrollment caps on some facilities. “We have some larger CDCs that we just can’t fill to full capacity with children because we just don’t have the workforce and that’s a limiting factor for us,” he said.
Both generals highlighted a pair of resurgent or new initiatives that are improving childcare center access and spouse employment.
As part of a recent push to improve portability of spouse employment opportunities, the Army now allows child development center employees who are military dependents to transfer employment to another installation if their spouse has a PCS. Previously they would have to resign and reapply at the new base.
Jones said the Family Child Care program, which allows the Army to pay bonuses to and train qualified on-base residents who provide certified in-home child care to their neighbors, is also bouncing back after the pandemic.
Vereen hopes the efforts, in addition to a subsidy that helps families seek off-base childcare if necessary, will combine to take pressure off Army families and give spouses with children the freedom to pursue career opportunities. And they may not stop there — the general said his team is “looking at other ways” to address “the capacity problem.”
“We are seeing progress, but I think there’s still some work to be done,” he said.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard’s border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.