By Deborah Nelson and M.B. Pell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The investigative arm of Congress has launched an inquiry into hazards faced by the occupants of housing on U.S. military bases and the oversight of those conditions by the armed services.
The Government Accountability Office review follows Reuters reports that detailed substandard conditions at U.S. military bases, including lead exposure and infestations of vermin and mold. The reports also described how military families encounter high hurdles to resolving disputes in a system that grants vast powers to private landlords who manage base housing across the United States.
Initially, the GAO review was to focus on lead poisoning perils at military bases. A bipartisan Congressional agreement had mandated the agency investigate lead hazards. But now, an agency official told Reuters, the examination is expanding in scope.
“We are looking at all hazards, not just lead paint,” said Brian J. Lepore, the GAO’s director of defense capabilities and management. The agency is just beginning to review “the condition of the houses and oversight by the military departments,” he said.
The Department of Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Military housing advocate Crystal Cornwall said she and other spouses of armed-services members have asked the GAO to investigate. The families want an independent agency to “know what was happening to military families,” said Cornwall, a Marine spouse in Virginia who is leading a grassroots drive to push Congress for better housing conditions.
Reuters has been exploring slum-like conditions in housing at U.S. military bases. Nationwide, about 30 percent of military families live in base housing operated by military-private partnerships.
In August, the news agency described how lead poisoning hazards lurk at many U.S. Army bases featuring older housing and lax oversight by the government and landlords. That report prompted the Army to craft a plan to inspect 40,000 homes and remediate lead hazards. It also led members of Congress to demand a GAO inquiry into lead poisoning risks on bases.
This month, Reuters detailed widespread mold and vermin problems at Marine, Navy and other military bases. The report, based on interviews with more than 100 families, described how occupants of base housing are armed with fewer tenant rights than civilians living off base. Some families said they left the service rather than continue to battle with landlords and the military.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Januta. Editing by Ronnie Greene.)