Army's Idea to Privatize Barracks Has Some Cautious Bipartisan Support on Capitol Hill

Quality assurance inspection on barracks at Fort Liberty, North Carolina
Members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District conduct a quality assurance inspection on one of eight newly renovated volunteer army (VOLAR barracks) at Fort Liberty, North Carolina, Nov. 15, 2023. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Samuel Weldin)

The Army's plans to move toward privatizing its barracks -- an idea that the service had repeatedly rejected since the 1990s -- has at least some bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee have said they back the idea, which the Army has now started to embrace as it looks for solutions to poor living conditions for soldiers on base.

"It'll go slow," Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., who serves as the ranking member of the Armed Services subcommittee on readiness, told in an interview. "There are a lot of details that'll need to be worked out. ... We've learned what works and doesn't work from family housing."

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In December, the Army's top planners held a barracks summit and came back relatively empty-handed on ideas on improving quality of life in barracks ahead of two key hearings before lawmakers in Congress, with privatization pilot projects being the only concrete plan.

The Army is already moving forward with plans to privatize barracks at Fort Irwin, California, which will include 544 spaces for junior enlisted troops, and it plans to expand that effort to other installations.

That follows the Navy dipping its toes into privatized barracks in Norfolk, Virginia, and San Diego, California, projects that have been generally well received. But it remains to be seen how those facilities are maintained in the long run.

Garamendi said it's key that the Tenant Bill of Rights, a basic outline of quality-of-life standards used for privatized military family housing, be transferred to privatized Army barracks.

"The most important piece is to make sure someone is responsible," he added. "We need to write into the law that the base commander has ongoing responsibility."

Fellow committee member Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Va., a former Navy helicopter pilot, said she also supports the Army's plans.

"I'm a big fan," Kiggans said at an Armed Services Committee hearing on living conditions Wednesday, referring to privatizing barracks. "I would love to see those programs expand."

The Army's plan is still in its infancy, and it will likely be a yearslong process before whichever housing company wins the contract breaks ground and builds new barracks.

But housing contracts are typically for 50 years, with only five housing companies owning almost all of the privatized family housing. Meanwhile, much of that housing has been mired in recent scandals, with management companies constantly fending off lawsuits and scorn from Congress.

Some Army staff have been alarmed behind the scenes about the idea of privatization, arguing that families have faced enormous challenges dealing with housing companies and that it could be even more difficult for junior soldiers to advocate for themselves.

In many cases, privatized family housing has deteriorated into conditions similar to the barracks, with mold and pest infestations, long delays for basic maintenance, and other health and infrastructure issues.

Those problems reached a crescendo in 2021 when the company Balfour Beatty pleaded guilty to fraud tied to conditions in military housing from 2013 to 2019. As part of the plea, the company agreed to pay $65 million in fines and restitution. A congressional investigation in 2022 found the company's practices were still putting military families' health and safety at risk, with reports of filth, mold and asbestos.

The Army has fallen severely behind on maintaining its barracks. Its budget of about $2 billion per year only scratches the surface of its maintenance backlog, which is estimated to be roughly $7.5 billion -- a problem that grows deeper each year as conditions deteriorate even further and inflation increases costs.

Fort Moore, Georgia, is home to the Army's basic training for its ground combat troops, including its infantry, cavalry scouts and tankers. It's also home to the service's elite Ranger school. Some 60,000 soldiers move through the installation and its 121 barracks every year -- with many of those buildings being half a century, or more, old.

Ultimately, local command teams have little authority over the big picture responsibility of their infrastructure. Moore's leadership has taken some small steps, having briefs for incoming soldiers and families on caring for infrastructure and setting up spots on base to pick up supplies for basic maintenance, such as cleaning supplies and HVAC filters.

"We have seasonal challenges here," Col. Colin Mahle, Fort Moore's garrison commander, told in an interview. "During the summer, we have high heat, high humidity, and extensive maintenance on our HVAC systems. ... People are our No. 1 priority; supporting Army readiness is making sure we maintain a high level of health, safety and overall quality of life for our soldiers."

Service leaders, including Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, have long touted quality-of-life issues as a key priority, with barracks conditions being at the center. The service moved to evacuate some 1,100 soldiers from moldy, dilapidated barracks at Fort Liberty, North Carolina, and fast-tracked demolition and renovations after media coverage of the issue. But other than that unprecedented move, the service has little to show recently for its attention to the living conditions of junior troops.

Related: Army Eyes Privatized Barracks as It Struggles to Find a Solution to Poor Living Conditions for Soldiers

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