Military families poised to get protection from moldy housing. It’s about time. | Editorial

Congress is close to passing legislation that should make on-base housing safer.
Amie Norquist sits in January with her children Allie, Ethan, Elise and Jason on a mattress serving as a couch in the living of their new home in Riverview . After a month of living in on-base housing at MacDill Air Force Base, Norquist noticed her children were getting sick. BRONTE WITTPENN | Times
Amie Norquist sits in January with her children Allie, Ethan, Elise and Jason on a mattress serving as a couch in the living of their new home in Riverview . After a month of living in on-base housing at MacDill Air Force Base, Norquist noticed her children were getting sick. BRONTE WITTPENN | Times
Published July 22
Updated July 23

For too long, military families haven’t felt safe in their homes due to mold, vermin and other maintenance issues. Private firms that operate housing on bases around the country including MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa were appallingly slow to react, if they did anything at all. Long-term relief is finally in sight, thanks to repeated complaints, a Tampa Bay Times report and a big push from members of Congress from Tampa Bay.

Military families are generally slow to complain publicly. It’s part of their makeup. They also know that complainers don’t often prosper in the military hierarchy. Despite that, several courageous MacDill families spoke to the Times earlier this year about mold infested walls, shoddy construction and how their children were getting sick. Since then, several more military spouses and active-duty service members, including a Green Beret and a Marine master gunnery sergeant, have spoken out about the deplorable conditions.

Equally appalling: The families were charged thousands of dollars in penalties for breaking leases because a private firm that provides MacDill’s on-base housing failed to make repairs or was slow to respond. The military contracts out nearly all on-base housing, which only made it harder for families to get relief.

The news reports prompted a review which found that out of 10,000 Air Force base homes across the country, a quarter had mold and moisture. They found signs of vermin in 13 percent, chipped and flaking paint in 5 percent and other maintenance concerns in 71 percent.

Credit goes to U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa; Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor; Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg; Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota and Sen. Rick Scott for exploring solutions. Both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act would require landlords to tell prospective tenants about mold and lead contamination. The versions also create a database of military housing complaints, a framework for settling disputes and protections from retaliation for families who file grievances.

The hitch: The House and Senate still have to hammer out several other provisions in the legislation, which funds the military. The Senate version calls for $750 billion for 2020, while the House wants $733 billion. The House version includes language that would make President Donald Trump seek congressional approval before going to war with Iran. The Senate version isn’t as restrictive.

Those are important issues that could take time to reconcile. But the improvements to military housing should not be bargaining chips in the bigger battle. Watering down the protections would be a disservice to our military families. The much-needed safeguards are nearly in place. It’s time to push them across the finish line.

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