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Problems Such As Mold Persist At Private Military Housing

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

More than a year after widespread complaints of mold, mice and other issues, the military is still struggling to improve conditions in private military housing. The new defense budget includes language that puts greater power in the hands of tenants and local commanders. Steve Walsh with member station KPBS has more.

HOPE GUINN BRADLEY: Yeah, and that's the intake. And if I could show you on my intake at my house, oh, my goodness.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Hope Guinn Bradley lives in military housing in San Diego. Her husband is in the Navy. She's become an unofficial spokeswoman for other residents in privately run military housing.

BRADLEY: For some of these families, this is the first time that they've lived away from home. This is the first time that they have rented a home and been responsible for the things that happen within that home, and they just simply don't have the knowledge.

WALSH: The problems with contractors who provide private military housing for each of the service branches made nationwide news over a year ago, but those problems persist. Marine families in San Diego have reported mice infestations inside their homes at Camp Pendleton. Navy and Marine families complained about the slow response time from private maintenance contractors.

BRADLEY: That's the thing - we're not asking for anything outlandish; we just want homes that don't make our children sick.

WALSH: Tenants complained about mold collecting in their ductwork in one development. Lincoln Military Housing, the private contractor who runs the subdivision, sent a contractor who taped blue plastic all over their vents. Bradley says the family hasn't been told when the contractor will be back. She says the Navy has to do a better job of managing the private contractor.

BRADLEY: I feel like enough of us are saying, hey, guys, this is not OK. Hey, guys, they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing for our families. Hey, guys, we need some help from somebody that can make some things happen.

WALSH: The Navy, like all of the service branches, vowed to get more involved after widespread complaints of substandard conditions made their way all the way to Congress last year. But in San Diego alone, the Navy found they had little leverage to force changes under their contract with Lincoln Military Housing.

MARK NIESWIADOMY: Right now, again, it's advocacy if there is a problem.

WALSH: Captain Mark Nieswiadomy is the commander of Naval Base San Diego. He says when problems arise, he talks to the contractor.

NIESWIADOMY: My fellow commanding officers, when their sailors have issues, please bring them up. Nobody should be suffering in silence. Let's hear about them. Because we don't know about them, the sailor may be struggling, and they don't need to feel that way.

WALSH: Local commanders haven't had the authority to withhold incentive payments for substandard conditions. For Captain Nieswiadomy, that's meant limited options.

NIESWIADOMY: Those are the tools I have right now. I'm the advocate for our families. And could there be more tools that potentially come to the command officers? They could.

WALSH: Payments are based on things like customer satisfaction surveys. Recently, the General Accounting Office told Congress those surveys are suspect, adding the Pentagon has little insight into the real condition of housing managed by private contractors. Congress has included language in the defense budget that would require the Pentagon to negotiate a tenant's bill of rights for military housing. Local commanders would also have some discretion to withhold incentive payments.

Hope Bradley, who works with other military tenants in San Diego, says families can feel stuck. They can rent a place on their own, but in pricey San Diego, even finding a home can be tough.

BRADLEY: Our families are kind of in a unique position because a lot of them don't have anywhere else to live. They can't afford to live out in town.

WALSH: In San Diego, where there are complaints of mold in the ducts, the contractor has told the Navy that every home will be inspected. Though, for now, at least 17 families are expected to remain in hotels over Christmas, with no definite answer on when they'll come home.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.