Fort Meade part of Army's housing revolution

April 17, 2001|By Mahlon Apgar IV

PRESIDENT BUSH'S commitment to improve military housing is welcome news for thousands of service families who cope daily with leaky plumbing, peeling paint and drafty windows. Soldiers are used to roughing it in the field, but their spouses and children shouldn't have to at home.

It means changes are in store at Fort Meade.

Three years ago, Army leaders faced an immense challenge. More than 80,000 Army family houses - three-quarters of the total - needed renovation or replacement. The problem stemmed from years of underfunding, deferred maintenance and a labyrinthine system of excessive regulations, cumbersome procedures and fragmented responsibilities.

Consequently, military housing was in short supply, took longer to produce and cost more to build and maintain than comparable private housing. Conventional solutions would require $7 billion and take decades to implement. Unless funding was found and the system reformed, conditions would only worsen.

To meet this challenge, the Army pioneered a revolutionary strategy - enlisting proven developers, backed by private capital, to revitalize and manage military communities on Army posts. The strategy required fundamental changes.

The strategy is being tested with 16,000 houses on four major posts. Early results from projects in Colorado, Texas and Washington state are promising. Attractive, well-equipped homes have been designed and built in less than a year. Site layouts, neighborhood facilities and landscaping mirror market standards.

Relieved of rigid specifications, military communities are being planned to look and feel more like their civilian counterparts. Yet the core values that underpin Army life still thrive. Young corporals, seasoned sergeants and their families are thrilled.

Fort Meade will be the fourth test site. Its 2,900 houses are among the Army's worst, yet its site is one of the best because of its low density and location between Washington and Baltimore. Leading developers have verified its potential. Meade will benefit from nearby Columbia, a model of private community development for the military because it blends housing, recreation, schools, shopping and employment.

Taxpayers should be pleased with the partnership strategy. Life-cycle savings of $100,000 per house are expected. Tight military construction budgets will be leveraged: for every dollar of public funding, private investors will provide $10 or more. That's more than $1 billion in savings and billions more in value for the first four posts alone. At a time of austerity, these efficiencies are significant.

Despite initial resistance, the Army's revolution in military housing is succeeding. Obstacles continue to arise, but persistent leadership and bipartisan congressional support overcome them.

The new administration should champion the Army's initiative and extend its key features to other defense programs. Not only will this provide high quality, affordable military housing, it will also help transform the business of government. Soldiers will gain the quality of life they deserve and the nation will reap value for money.

Mahlon Apgar IV, an international management consultant, was assistant secretary of the Army for installations and environment from 1998 until January and led the Army's partnership initiatives. He teaches entrepreneurship at Princeton University.

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