An aerial view of Norfolk Naval Station, the largest naval base in the world. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Christopher B. Stoltz/Released)

WASHINGTON — Virginia lawmakers are pushing legislation to protect military families from threats in their own homes, like toxic mold, pests and disrepair.

Democrats who represent the state in the U.S. Congress want to put new requirements on the companies that manage privatized military housing. The scramble for new safeguards comes after reports of widespread problems in privatized military housing, much of it in aging homes.

The issue gained national attention after an investigative series by Reuters documented squalid conditions in some military housing, including toxic mold and lead poisoning that caused long-term health problems for some families. The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee held two lengthy hearings on the issue this year.

Two Virginia families have sued the U.S. Navy over mold problems in the last three years. And Navy bases in the Hampton Roads area ranked “poor” in a housing survey report the Navy updated this week.

In response, military leaders have started to work on a tenant’s bill of rights. Housing management companies have held town halls. And the Navy is working on “action plans” for each installation, tied to specific concerns residents raised in the recent survey.

But some lawmakers think more needs to be done. The U.S. House and Senate each included new requirements for the military and its housing contractors as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, the massive annual bill that sets budget and policy for the Pentagon. Lawmakers are expected to hammer out a conference agreement on the bill in September.

“I’m hopeful that this year’s final defense bill will include reforms to address the horrific conditions that have been uncovered in privatized housing for military families,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said in an email this week to the Virginia Mercury.

“I’ve spoken with families who feared for the health and safety of their kids because of exposure to mold, lead and rodent infestations in their own homes. That’s intolerable, and the defense bill is an opportunity to address it. We need to ensure legal protections for military families and hold private landlords accountable once and for all.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, and Elaine Luria, D-2nd, also pushed for new protections in the defense bill. The lawmakers sent a letter earlier this month to the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, urging them to keep the privatized housing requirements in the bill as the two chambers negotiate a final agreement. California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris also signed on to the letter.

Warner says that Congress needs to give residents more power and hold the private housing companies accountable for providing safe and healthy housing.

“I was proud to see the Senate and the House vote for these and other protections in their versions of our nation’s defense authorization bill,” Warner said in a statement this week. “But now, in the final stretch, it’s more important than ever that these crucial measures be safeguarded during final NDAA negotiations.”

House and Senate staffers said this week that negotiations on the defense bill are still in the preliminary stages. Members of Congress are in their home districts for August recess but some committee staff are working on proposals. The House and Senate conference committee is expected to meet next month.

Last year, the defense bill cleared with bipartisan support well before the deadline of Oct. 1, the new fiscal year. This year’s conference is expected to be more fraught, largely because of other contentious issues, like the House proposal to block the Trump administration from deploying new low-yield nuclear weapons. House Democrats passed their version of the defense act without any Republican votes. None of Virginia’s Republican congressmen responded to requests for comment from the Mercury for this story.

Mold, pests and lead

The military made a massive shift in its housing management in 1996, turning over ownership and management of many of its family housing units to property managers and private real estate companies. At the time, the military thought the professional real estate managers would do a better, more efficient job of taking care of the military’s housing needs.

But investigations have found problems with upkeep and management of the aging housing inventory. Both the military and nonprofit advocacy groups have conducted national surveys on housing satisfaction over the past year. The surveys used different methodologies, but both found many residents are dissatisfied.

Residents at 42 different Navy installations ranked 12 as “below average” and five as “poor” — including those in the Hampton Roads area- in a recent Navy survey.

Only 16 percent of respondents gave a positive review to their housing in a national survey on military housing from the Military Family Advisory Network. The advocacy group had responses from nearly 17,000 residents at 160 locations across the United States, including 11 bases in Virginia.

Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County is among the bases where military members have complained about substandard housing managed by private companies. (Creative Commons via Wikipedia)

One resident from Fort Belvoir, whose name was kept anonymous, said the pipes burst three times in their home.

“Each time water stood on our floor and soaked into our living room where we had tile carpets that sat on concrete,” the respondent wrote. “We have small children and there was mold that grew into the threshold because housing maintenance didn’t clean the water up adequately.”

Within Virginia, more than half of respondents said their housing was in need of maintenance, repair and remediation. About a third of respondents at most of the Virginia locations identified unaddressed problems with mold.

Another resident in Fort Belvoir said the house was not sealed properly and when an old hospital was demolished, “all the mice that lived there moved in with me.” And a resident at Naval Station Norfolk reported moving into a house that was left filthy from previous tenants, with hair, urine, vomit and debris on the floor.

Lincoln Military Housing manages 4,400 units for the Navy along the Virginia coast, including many clustered in areas around Naval Station Norfolk, Naval Station Oceana and Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek. In recent months, the corporation has held town-halls with residents to hear their concerns. Jarl Bliss, Lincoln president and chief executive officer, told senators at the hearing this spring that he wants to regain the trust of military families.

Congressional response

In the wake of these discoveries, some lawmakers proposed a bill, “Ensuring Safe Housing for our Military Act.” Kaine, Warner, Spanberger and Luria were among the co-sponsors. There were three Republican co-sponsors, though none from Virginia. Parts of their proposal are included in the massive defense bill.

“It’s unacceptable that our servicemembers and military families are dealing with hazardous conditions in their own homes,” Luria, a Navy veteran, said in an email.

The bill would take major steps to cut off financial support to housing contractors until they meet certain standards. It would withhold housing payments to contractors until the companies resolve disputes over housing conditions with residents, and it would block fees to contractors if they fail to remedy health or environmental hazards.

“By stopping contractors from imposing unfair damage fees and ensuring they address unacceptable living conditions, we are securing the housing conditions our servicemembers and military families have rightfully earned,” Spanberger said in an email this week. “I’m urging the NDAA conferees to recognize the critical importance of this language, and I’ll keep fighting to make sure it’s included in the final bill and can be signed into law by the president.”

The defense act language would also require the military to create common credentials for health and safety inspections.The proposal would make housing companies pay for relocation costs if residents have to move due to an environmental or health hazard in their home.

One of Kaine’s proposals that made it into the bill would require the Defense Department to establish a “move-out checklist,” so the tenant and housing office verify that outstanding maintenance needs are fixed and the home is in good condition.

Kaine also pushed for language to address police enforcement at off-base military housing, which is sometimes left in a no-patrol zone where neither local police nor military police seem to have jurisdiction. The bill has a provision requiring the military to make sure their own police can patrol privatized housing that is not on a military installation.

Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, was not one of the cosponsors of the original bill, but said she supports many of its provisions, including creation of a tenants’ bill of rights for servicemembers.

“Our servicemembers and military families deserve safe, high-quality housing, but that hasn’t been the case for too many servicemembers in Virginia—it’s unacceptable that basic needs are not being met,” said Wexton.

The Navy Installations Command said it would not comment on pending legislation.