Stately oak trees banded with yellow ribbons stand in front of the houses in Thomason Park at Quantico Marine Corps Base. But no Marine will return to these tired structures.
Inside the old houses, electrical sockets spark, water leaks, the stairs are precarious and mold is impossible to combat. "It got to the point that you'd rather not come home," Staff Sgt. Jerome Taylor said.
Taylor and others will not have to live in such conditions much longer. Throughout the area, inadequate and outdated military housing is being torn down to make room for new houses that the military hopes will improve battered morale and aid in retention and recruitment.
A 1995 report by the Defense Science Board said the condition of military family housing "made daily activities a trial and lowered morale." The report recommended creation of a Military Housing Authority that would follow private industry practices in improving the military's stock of housing.
The 1996 National Defense Authorization Act established the Military Housing Privatization Initiative, which approved partnerships with private firms to build and manage military family housing. The military was authorized to guarantee rent payments in long-term contracts to private companies, reducing risk and providing incentive to participate.
Through privatization, the military expects to improve the quality of home life for its fighting force. The Department of Defense 2003 housing inventory indicates that 60 percent of its 273,000 family housing units are "inadequate," requiring such significant repair that retaining the units is not cost-effective.
In the Washington area, private companies have begun replacing or refurbishing 3,170 houses at Fort Meade and 1,137 at Quantico. Contracts are nearing completion for 2,070 houses at Fort Belvoir and 221 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Col. John W. Ives, Fort Meade base commander, said the work was overdue but welcome. "In the Army, we have a mantra: 'You enlist the soldier but you reenlist the family,' " he said.
At Fort Meade, construction began in January on the first five neighborhoods, each with its own management staff and 14,000-square- foot recreation center. The builder, Picerne Military Housing, must finish four new houses a week to stay on schedule for completion in 2012, said Bill Mulvey, communications director. The project is valued at more than $400 million.
Staff Sgt. Renee Jackson served in the Persian Gulf region during Operation Desert Storm and has worked as an Army recruiter for six years. She moved into a new townhouse at Fort Meade in October after spending six months in temporary housing.
"My pride was hurt," Jackson said, describing those quarters, which will be torn down soon. "I was like: 'I served in your war.' "
Jackson, who recruits in Baltimore, said she planned to bring potential enlistees to Fort Meade to get a look at the new housing. "We're going to use this as a selling technique, to show them the quality of life they can expect one day," Jackson said.
Chief Warrant Officer Duane Gere and his family recently moved into a single-family house at Fort Meade bordering the base golf course. The house includes a two-car garage, hardwood floors, a soaking tub in the master bathroom and soaring ceilings in the family room.
"This is certainly an inducement," Gere said. "You've got to be happier coming home to a house like this."
The management company handles all maintenance and even cuts the grass. "It's nice to know that if I'm away, my wife won't need to deal with that kind of thing," he said.
At Quantico, ground was broken last month on the first phase of redevelopment -- 191 new single-family houses for Thomason Park. Karen Ayers, director of housing for the Marine Corps, said the $245 million project would tap the local workforce for 80 percent of its construction jobs, employing an estimated 1,500 people. Chris Guidi, who runs the Fort Belvoir project for Clark Realty Military Housing, said work there could employ an additional 1,000 people during construction.
Privatized replacement and renovation of the housing stock is expected to cost about $14 billion, a savings of about $2 billion, according to the Housing and Competitive Sourcing Office at the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Installations and Environment. It's also expected to result in the elimination of all inadequate housing by 2015 -- up to a decade sooner than would have been achieved using military funding and manpower.
The military has just begun conducting tenant surveys, so there is no data yet indicating whether the new housing has influenced Service members to reenlist, said Joe Sikes, housing director for the Department of Defense. "However, private firms, because of their need to return a profit, work hard to keep units in good repair and keep occupancy rates up."
Sikes said base commanders are getting the word that civilian management companies fix problems faster, keeping military personnel and their families happier.
Ives, the Fort Meade commander, said his base turned over a backlog of 4,000 repairs to the Picerne staff, which fixed all the problems in eight months. He said the civilian management team was able to make quick decisions and implement them immediately, "something you couldn't do in the Army system. [Privatization] is the right answer for families."
Gen. Michael W. Hagee, the Marine Corps commandant, lived in Quantico's Thomason Park with his wife in the 1960s and described hanging clothes outside, where they froze in winter.
"We should not have had to do that in 1969, and we sure should not have to do that today," Hagee said. "Families rate good communities, they rate good housing, they rate good quality of life."
Ives recounted living with six other family members as a child in an 800-square-foot house at Fort Bliss, Tex.
"We have to do better today, and we are," he said. "You can
imagine their reaction when we turn over a 1,700-square-foot townhouse with
a garage. The first lady we gave keys, she cried."
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or
distribution is prohibited without permission.
Section: WEEKLY - VIRGINIA