General Curtis Lemay, the commander of Strategic Air Command after World War II, was famous for his hands-on inspections of military bases under his command. Senior officers serving under him would often regale their subordinates with stories of the general’s visits.
Lemay had a methodology for his inspections. When a wing commander drove him to a specified location, such as the avionics radar shop, the General expected his subordinate to personally know the shop’s senior noncommissioned officers by name. They were also required to know the best route to their destination and where to park.
When a new SAC wing commander was assigned to a base, General Lemay would grant him a 90-day grace period to allow the new appointee sufficient time to become acquainted with base personnel and facilities by way of “management by walking around” leadership. Failure to meet the general’s expectations during an inspection would result in their replacement.
As a third-generation veteran and real estate investor, I often wonder what General Lemay would think of the state of housing for our military families. Based upon his expected qualities for his wing commanders, I believe the general would take issue with the way both contractors and the military management have handled the issue.
Since the outbreak of World War II, military housing has undergone considerable changes since the outbreak of World War II. When my grandfather, John “Red” Morgan, joined the Army Air Corp, family housing was covered by the Lanham Act. Unfortunately, the quality of housing was often subpar. Military personnel and their families might find themselves living in renovated garages or plywood huts. Some lacked running water or electricity. At most stateside bases, only the most senior of officers lived on post. The families of junior officers were often forced to find housing elsewhere, usually with their relatives.
When veterans left military service, the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act – also known as the G.I. Bill – guaranteed mortgage loans for almost 2.4 million homes. While this provided housing for retiring and separating personnel, it would take another five years before legislation would further address the issues facing on-base housing.
That aid came in the form of the 1949 Wherry Act, which allowed private contractors to construct over 83,000 homes on military bases. Military members renting these homes would be able to use their housing allowance to cover rent.
In 1955, the Capehart program created an additional 115,000 homes. Larger than Wherry homes, each military branch would take up the responsibility for paying off the 25-year mortgage. In exchange, personnel would forfeit their housing allowance.
Families who lived in these facilities had to meet stringent housing regulations, including grass cut to a certain length and driveways and sidewalks shoveled clear of snow. During the early Cold War era, senior officers would regularly conduct drive-by inspections. Families who failed to adhere to standards would be issued fines. Those who frequently violated these guidelines could be summoned to the installation’s commanding officer for counseling.
Each military installation would have a civil engineering organization responsible for providing routine maintenance and addressing power outages and water shortages. Air Force technicians were on call 24 hours a day to provide emergency services.
Despite receiving reduced priority during the Vietnam conflict, base housing would once again see further legislation in the 1980s. President Reagan signed the Military Construction Authorization Act which led to two projects: Section 801 and 802, which took different approaches to housing.
Section 801 consisted of build-to-lease projects. High maintenance costs for these homes would force the Department of Defense to foot the bill for repairs. After falling into disfavor with Congress due to these costs, 801 homes would cease being built in the 90s with approximately 11,000 having been constructed.
The 802 Project fared even worse. Relying on their tenant’s ability to pay, limitations were caused by inadequate housing allowances for personnel resulting in a lack of interest from private construction companies. Ultimately, only 276 homes were built.
In 1996, the Military Housing Privatization Initiative took a new approach to the housing issue. Private developers, selected by a process of competitive bidding, would be able to build homes for individual branches of service which would then operate under a 50-year lease. The military would further turn over home maintenance to private contractors. This move would allow the services to transfer its military talent, formerly working as base plumbers and electricians, into roles supporting critical operations such as cybersecurity and communications.
On paper, the concept seemed sound in terms of allocating manpower. Yet as the military shifted into this new housing arrangement, it has become apparent that military contract property managers are often relying upon unqualified repair specialists to handle maintenance. If you were to look up “base military housing issues” online, you would find stories from Fort Bragg, Fort Hood, Camp LeJune, and Joint Base San Antonio where tenants are suing contractors for negligence.
These housing issues continue to endure today. One particular story involved an incident in June of 2021 where two senior housing contract executives with Balfour Beatty Communities falsified maintenance reports in order to receive a $2.5 million incentive.
My grandfather John “Red” Morgan, an Air Force Medal of Honor recipient, would question how military leadership has failed to adhere to the “management by walking around” approach to ensure quality control with its contract management teams. Without these basic principles of quality inspection in place, housing contractors like Balfour Beatty have been able to offer subpar service and housing to our military families. Were it not for the residents making formal complaints, these two might not have been caught.
As a real estate investor and property manager working for the Marines, I follow the example of General Lemay by making unannounced inspections as a follow-up to repairs. To maintain excellent results, I hire qualified professionals who know how to fix a problem. By sticking to this approach, I assure my residents that I am someone who can ensure successful results.
This is a concept our military leadership must embrace. The Department of Defense is hiring more government employees and contractors to personally evaluate the support on-base communities are receiving. Recently, when media coverage and Congressional insight revealed glaring issues with base housing. Since then, base commanders made home inspections a top priority.
When military personnel are deployed, they often leave families in the hope that they won’t have to worry about maintenance issues. If my grandfather received a letter describing his wife’s tribulations with home repair, I wonder if that news would distract him during his bombing mission against Nazi Germany. Could you imagine what today’s troops must go through when faced with phone calls regarding home woes? When deployed, our military professionals must focus on the mission at hand; they cannot afford to be distracted by concerns for their families’ welfare in subpar homes.
Military leadership should embrace Lemay’s leadership style to tackle this threat of poor home maintenance. It is time to put some teeth into the regulations and policies that allow the service branches to select quality contractors to provide housing on-site or near a base.