1. Military

Defense budgets include protections for military families fighting mold contamination

TAMPA — Families living in private housing at MacDill Air Force Base and at bases across the nation stand to gain new protections against mold contamination under a proposed national defense budget for 2020.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act last week. Like the Senate version, it would require landlords to disclose records of mold and lead contamination to prospective tenants and offer protection from retaliation to families who file grievances. Both also would establish a dispute resolution process for landlords and tenants and create a public database of military housing complaints.

"We have a responsibility to make sure that families have safe and clean housing," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who helped promote the new provisions in the House.

Earlier this year the Tampa Bay Times reported that at least seven MacDill families had complained about mold in their homes and resulting health problems. In a review of nearly 10,000 Air Force base homes across the country, 25 percent had mold and moisture issues, 13 percent showed signs of vermin, 5 percent had chipped or flaking paint and 71 percent had other maintenance concerns.

Castor argued that since the Department of Defense privatized base housing, military officers and their families have lost significant control and oversight over the quality of their homes. The provisions passed in the defense bills effectively give military families a tenant bill of rights.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio agreed.

"I supported the Senate's NDAA, which includes a Tenant's Bill of Rights, because our military families should not be living in unhealthy conditions,'' he said in a statement.

Natalie Khawam, a Tampa attorney representing military families at MacDill, said "her clients are relieved that Congress is installing new measures."

Ron Hansen, president of the Michaels Organization, which oversees housing management at MacDill, said the best way to address base housing issues is direct communication between affected families and staff and not federal intervention.

But he said any means of opening communication between management and tenants is a good thing.

"We welcome the bill of rights," Hansen said.

The next step for families waiting on the new protections is the larger budgetary battle expected between the House led by Democrats and the Senate led by Republicans, said Gordon Adams, professor emeritus at the School of International Service at American University in Washington D.C.

Typically, both congressional chambers produce similar National Defense Authorization Act bills, Adams said, but not this year.

The House version requests a $733 billion budget based on what the Pentagon projected it would need in 2020 and requires that the president seek congressional approval before engaging in a war with Iran, Adams said.

The Senate version calls for $17 billion more in funding to better align with what President Donald Trump has requested and does less to restrict his executive authority in matters of defense.

"It's not going to be a walk in the park to split the difference here," Adams said.

Both he and U.S. Rep. Castor fear a possible government shutdown as talks over the broader national budget are already contentious, leaving the defense budget caught in the tussle.

Contact Ileana Najarro at Follow @IleanaNajarro.