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Lackland Project Signals DoD Housing Shortage End?

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, June 11, 1999 – They were the perfect houses for the 1950s. But that was then, and this is 1999.


The houses in question are "Wherrys," built in the early 1950s to support military housing requirements on this training base. "New, they were adequate," said Debbie Harkiewicz, chief of Lackland's privatization office.


But family lifestyles have changed. Computers and microwave ovens place demands on electrical systems that the designers of these houses never imagined.


"When I was first assigned here, they showed me those houses," said a military training instructor here. "The house I had at my last base was on the economy and had 3,500 square feet with two-and-a-half baths. These have about 1,400 square feet and a bath-and-a-half. I said, 'I don't think so.'"


It's reactions like this all over the military that spurred DoD's Housing Privatization Program, Harkiewicz said. “From my perspective, reactions from enlisted tenants are usually spurred from the need of quality, safe, affordable housing located in an area with a good performing school district,” she said. “On-base housing does provide this, but generally there is not enough on-base housing to support the needs at most bases.”


Basically, the program brings in private-sector companies to build or refurbish military family housing units and then manage them. Waiting lists at most installations are long, she said. There are more than 900 families on the waiting list at Lackland. These families can wait 35 months to obtain on-base housing.


DoD may put up military construction funds as seed money. Private companies that win contracts can then approach financial institutions and borrow against the project. Every DoD dollar is generally worth another four or five in a loan. DoD plans to privatize 60,000 housing units in the United States by the end of fiscal 2000.


The program started in fiscal 1996 and is designed to speed up refurbishing current quarters and to build new housing, department officials said. They estimated 180,000 housing units are already substandard and would take 30 years to refurbish or replace at the current spending rate for military construction. Privatization, they believe, can purge the backlog in 10 years.


Lackland is on the cutting edge of the program, said Teresa Gonzalez, contracting officer for the base program. The base is demolishing its 272 of its Wherry houses (named after the Wherry Act, the legislation that authorized them) and replacing them with 420 single- and multifamily units. "The government is leasing the land to the developer. The developer designs, constructs, owns and operates the units," she said.


The project of two-, three- and four-bedroom houses and townhomes is aimed at enlisted personnel in grades E-3 to E-7. The contractor, Lackland Military Housing Corp., a subsidiary of Landmark Inc. of Austin, Texas, has started construction and expects its first units to be ready for occupancy in late 1999, Gonzalez said.


Harkiewicz said the rents the corporation can charge are capped and tied to the basic housing allowance. Increases in rents will be tied to service members’ yearly increases in the basic housing allowance. Air Force officials decided to pay for utilities for this project, so service members don't, but this practice won't always be the case, she said.


There will be some out-of-pocket expenses. The developer can charge a deposit for pets, for example, she said.


For their money, residents will have a neighborhood pool, recreation areas, community centers, covered pavilions and hiking and biking trails. "This will look and operate just like a private development off base, because for all intents and purposes, it is," Harkiewicz said.

Because they are on the leading edge, Lackland officials learned lessons that should serve other installations well.


"We need more clear terms of what we want from a contractor," Gonzalez said. "We put out a minimal request for procurement. That has its good points. It allows everyone to be creative. But in our experience that left a lot of room for misperception.”


Harkiewicz noted that the request for proposal documents and other supporting documents such as the lease and loan documents took a long time to create and coordinate with all parties. “But it was necessary since this was the first one of its kind,” she said. “I don’t expect other similar ventures to have such large delays.”


Both understand the need for oversight. "This is an important project," Harkiewicz said. "What we do here will influence how this effort goes on in other areas and at other bases. We want this to succeed."

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