Concerned that landlords are not providing enough housing for military families with disabilities, two senators are pressing defense and government officials about whether they are doing enough to ensure those landlords are following federal laws.
In their letters to the secretaries of defense and housing and urban development, Senators Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said the recent information they received from five military privatized housing companies raises questions about the number of accessible houses being built on military bases, and whether the companies are complying with federal law.
The senators said they are concerned that the companies may not be providing enough accessible homes to military families to meet federal standards; they may not be complying with all fair housing disability laws; and they aren’t collecting information that would help them keep track of disability-related housing needs across their communities, making it difficult for the Defense Department to conduct oversight and ensure compliance.
The companies’ responses to the senators’ requests for information earlier didn’t provide all of the information the senators sought, “but they did reveal a series of concerns about providing accessible housing and accommodations to military families and the companies’ interpretation of federal laws” pertaining to these families, wrote Warren and Tillis, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The letters were sent this week to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Marcia Fudge, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and request answers by March 24.
Warren and Tillis began looking into the issue following an online survey conducted by the nonprofit Military Housing Advocacy Network about the availability for military families with disabilities, and the obstacles they faced. The results, released in July, were based on the responses of 100 military families. As of 2018, about 137,000 military dependent family members were enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program; it’s not known how many of these families require ADA-compliant homes. A report from the Government Accountability Office in March, 2020 found that for some residents of privatized housing, the accessibility to services for special needs family members played a role in their decision to live in privatized housing.
Among the questions sent to Fudge, the senators asked whether HUD has ever conducted an investigation into privatized military housing to make sure that military families with disability-related needs have access to safe and accessible housing. They asked for a description of HUD’s regulatory or enforcement authorities with regard to on-base military housing. HUD has primary responsibility for enforcing the country’s fair housing laws.,
Included in the letter to Austin are more than 50 questions about the availability of housing that is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and DoD’s oversight. For example, they ask for the number of special needs families at each installation, and how many have requested ADA housing; the percentage of ADA-compliant homes available at each installation, and the protocol for a family to request this housing; numbers of complaints from special needs families regarding housing needs, summaries of those complaints, and resolutions.
They ask questions about the oversight, including who is responsible for making sure the companies build the required number of ADA-compliant houses at each installation.
In an earlier response to Military Times, a DoD spokesman said that while it’s the privatized housing project owners’ responsibility to comply with project legal documents and applicable fair housing laws, “the military departments conduct project reviews to assess compliance and have government staff available within each installation military housing office to assist families.”
The senators sent letters in December to five privatized housing companies in December, asking detailed questions about their policies and numbers of ADA-compliant houses — Balfour Beatty Communities, Corvias Property Management, Hunt Military Communities, Lendlease Communities and Lincoln Property Company.
The companies indicated to the senators that for new construction, the agreement with DoD was that 5 percent of new houses built under military housing privatization would be ADA-compliant, according to the senators’ letters this week.
While some companies told the senators that they exceed that standard across their entire portfolio, only one of the companies provided the information for each installation, and that information indicated that more than 75 percent of the housing communities they managed didn’t meet that standard, senators wrote. They didn’t name the company.
The senators also noted that at least one of the companies, unnamed, indicated that they were not subject to all federal disability laws. The senators ask DoD to provide information about specific oversight procedures in place to make sure the housing companies are meeting their contractual obligations regarding the rights of people with disabilities, and how often each military department reviews the companies’ records to ensure they are complying with applicable federal and state law.
In a statement to Military Times, Balfour Beatty Communities officials said, “We take our obligations in regard to the Fair Housing Act, the ADA, and similar state and local laws very seriously, and believe our policies and procedures reflect that commitment.” Among other things in their response to the senators Jan. 15, they outlined their procedures for assigning ADA housing to residents with disabilities, whether or not they are enrolled in the EFMP program; and their process for reviewing requests for accommodations and modifications under their fair housing policy.
Lendlease officials said they have provided a full response to the senators.
“Every tenant and their family deserves accessible, quality housing and we take seriously all legal requirements and corresponding compliance obligations, including with respect to the Americans with Disabilities Act. We believe we responded fully and accurately to all the senators’ questions relative to this issue, and we are happy to provide any additional information, if requested.”
Lincoln Military Housing officials said they also comply with all state and federal laws applying to privatized military housing, in a statement to Military Times. They noted, however, that part of federal law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act “is normally interpreted as not applicable to privatized military housing as it generally pertains to housing that receives federal financial assistance via HUD.” Among other things, Section 504 requires housing providers to make and pay for structural modifications as a reasonable accommodation to meet a disability-related need, unless it amounts to an undue financial and administrative burden or a fundamental change of the program.
LMH and DoD agreed as part of the original proposals process that LMH would build a set percentage of new construction as “accessible/adaptable” units. That percentage varies by installation and project phase, but currently ranges from 5 percent to 20 percent of new construction homes in LMH projects, officials said. These homes are prioritized for EFMP families who need accessible/adaptable homes referred to LMH from DoD, officials said. But if there are circumstances where LMH offers one of these homes to a family that doesn’t have a disability, there are processes in place to move that family out, at no cost, when the need arises to move a higher-priority family with a disability into that home.
In the Military Housing Advocacy Network’s survey results, many of the 100 families who responded said they never received the ADA-compliant home they needed, or waited long periods of time for their needs to be met. About half of the families who did get ADA-compliant homes said they were missing accessibility features such as proper flooring, ramps, grab bars and properly sixed doorways and hallways. One in five of the families reported that they were charged for the installation of their accommodations, and about half said they were outright denied accommodations.
This story has been updated to include comments from Lincoln Military Housing.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.