WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) says it will not put a stop to private housing companies asking military families to sign non-disclosure agreements in settlements over housing problems.
We told you how our reporting uncovered NDAs are used by some private housing companies that run homes on-base when military families are looking to enter settlement agreements to be compensated after facing housing problems like mold, bug infestations and structural problems.
After our reporting, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) led a letter sent to the DoD in December demanding answers about the use of NDAs in military housing settlements and called on the DoD to put a stop to the use of the NDAs after complaints from military families surfaced about the practice.
“Given these concerns, we ask that you put an immediate end to any and all NDA provisions that military housing providers have put in place,” Warren’s letter said.
Our Washington News Bureau spoke with a senior DoD official this week who said the Department will not make that change.
The senior DoD official pointed out NDAs are currently allowed in military housing settlements under the law and said the Department will continue to review proposed NDAs for consistency with the law.
The DoD said it encourages tenants to seek legal advice from a military legal assistance attorney or other legal counsel about proposed settlement agreements.
“Just as Congress did not take away that opportunity for a settlement, we’re not looking to take away that opportunity,” said the senior DoD official about the use of NDAs. “We’re more focused on trying to address any underlying conditions that might be the result of some condition in the home and helping clarify for the residents their options.”
The senior DoD official said NDAs are commonly used in the private sector and said they can benefit both parties by protecting the privacy of the tenant and the housing company.
“Non-disclosures are beneficial to both sides, not just one,” said the senior DoD official. “There is a purpose and a use for non-disclosures. There is a rationale for them depending on the terms of the settlement itself and what’s involved in what’s happened.”
“I think it’s sickening that the DoD is OK with families signing an agreement to that degree for any reason,” said Breanna Bragg, a military spouse.
We told you how Bragg’s family refused to sign an NDA that would have prohibited them from even talking negatively about military housing in general after her family was displaced over mold at their previous home at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
We obtained that NDA which said the parties cannot “make negative statements related to or concerning Fort Belvoir housing or military housing in general, to the public (including but not limited to current, future, or former residents at Fort Belvoir), the press, on social media, or with any other media outlet.”
“There’s nothing beneficial about a family who was in crisis signing an agreement or a document, a legal document saying they can’t mention military housing in a negative way,” said Bragg.
We asked the DoD if it supports the language used in this particular NDA from Fort Belvoir since the confidentiality isn’t solely restricted to the terms of the settlement, but rather about military housing in general.
In response, the DoD reiterated that the Department is not a party to the settlement agreements and said it’s between the tenant and the housing company.
“It is not the Department’s role, nor would it be appropriate, for DoD to provide an opinion regarding the terms of a proposed settlement agreement between an MHPI company and a Tenant, beyond reviewing any proposed NDA for consistency with section 2890(f) of title 10, United States Code,” the DoD said.
Military families we have spoken with since the start of our months-long investigation into privatized military housing problems have said they feel the NDAs unfairly silence the families.
“They see the pot boiling and they’re like no, no, no we’re going to put a lid on it because we don’t want anyone to know how bad it is,” said Stephanie Graham, a military spouse who previously lived in privatized military housing. “If they keep putting a lid on it and silencing families, then they keep getting their paycheck.”
The DoD’s written response to Sen. Warren’s letter indicated there were nearly 100 proposed settlements with tenants and military housing companies since FY 2019 and the majority included confidentiality clauses.
The senior DoD official said some settlements may include cases where the tenant wants confidentiality about the terms.
“The thing that concerns me is the assumption that all the settlement agreements are because there’s something wrong with the home,” said the senior DoD official.
The senior DoD official said some settlements could include instances where the tenant may have accidentally been at fault or a weather event could have caused a problem at the home.
“There are reasons why settlements are very beneficial to both sides and so we hate to have Congress or DoD take away that opportunity,” said the senior DoD official.
The senior DoD official also said the Department does not view the reported housing problems to be systemic or widespread among the roughly 210,000 privatized military homes.
The DoD said it “takes all resident complaints seriously” and expects the housing companies to provide “quality housing and a positive living experience.”
“I would take issue [with saying] that this is a widespread systemic issue across the portfolio,” said the senior DoD official. “I will acknowledge there are complaints that come up here and there and maybe it’s some locations more than others.”
That’s despite multiple inquiries in Congress over at least the last five years about ongoing military housing problems.
The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing in February of 2019 about reported unsafe living conditions on military bases and there have been several other hearings related to the topic since then.
Last year, a bipartisan Senate investigation uncovered mistreatment of military families at bases in Georgia and Texas.
Last month, we spoke exclusively with Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) who led a bipartisan letter sent to the DoD demanding answers about the potential link between health problems for the military families and these housing problems.
And just this week, Sen. Ossoff went to Fort Gordon to oversee home inspections after the investigation he led in the Senate revealed unsafe living conditions for military families.
“Complaints that military families have been raising for years,” said Ossoff at Fort Gordon. “Widespread mistreatment of families living in privatized housing on post.”
The DoD has not yet provided a response to Sen. Ossoff’s letter about the health impact for military families.
We asked Bragg what she wants to see happen next, now that the DoD has said it will not put a stop to the use of NDAs in military housing settlements.
“Legislative change,” Bragg responded.
In December, Sen. Warren told us she’ll make that happen if the DoD doesn’t stop the use of the NDAs.
“Will you push to have the language of the law changed to prohibit the use of these NDAs?” Manning asked Warren in December.
“Yes,” Warren responded.
In response to the DoD saying it will not stop the use of NDAs, Sen. Warren told us: “The Defense Department’s written response already shows it’s not conducting sufficient oversight of non-disclosure agreements by private housing contractors, despite these bizarre and inappropriate claims in contrary to families speaking out against NDAs. I will continue working to improve housing conditions for military families and ensure their concerns are addressed, not silenced.”
We’ll stay on top of this story and we’ll keep you posted on how other members of Congress respond.
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