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Military Barracks: Poor Living Conditions Undermine Quality of Life and Readiness

GAO-23-105797 Published: Sep 19, 2023. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2023.
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Fast Facts

Hundreds of thousands of service members live in military barracks. Concerns about poor living conditions and how DOD is managing the barracks go back decades.

We observed barracks in poor condition, including some with safety risks like sewage overflow and inoperable fire systems. And some barracks don't meet DOD requirements for privacy or amenities.

DOD doesn't have reliable information about barracks conditions, or how these conditions affect troop morale. And while DOD spends billions of dollars annually on its facilities, it's unable to identify how much funding goes toward barracks.

Our 31 recommendations address these issues.

Sewage overflow in a military training barracks restroom

Image showing a communal bathroom with sewage all over the floor.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Service members reported to GAO that the conditions of barracks affect their quality of life and readiness. However, GAO found weaknesses in the Department of Defense's (DOD) efforts to maintain and improve their conditions. For example,

  • DOD does not reliably assess conditions, and some barracks are substandard. DOD assessments of conditions are unreliable. GAO observed barracks that pose potentially serious health and safety risks—such as broken windows and inoperable fire systems—and that do not meet minimum DOD standards for privacy and configuration. Thousands of service members live in barracks below standards, according to officials.

Examples of Poor Barracks Conditions at Military Installations GAO Visited

Examples of Poor Barracks Conditions at Military Installations GAO Visited

  • DOD does not have complete funding information to make informed decisions. For example, DOD requested about $15 billion for overall facility sustainment for fiscal year 2024 but could not identify how much of this total would be spent toward barracks. In addition, DOD did not know how much it spent on housing allowances for service members who would normally be required to live in barracks, but did not because of insufficient space or poor living conditions. Complete funding information would help DOD target improvements and provide the department with more visibility into full costs.
  • DOD conducts insufficient oversight. For example, DOD does not track information on the condition of barracks or facilitate collaboration on initiatives to improve barracks. Insufficient oversight hampers DOD's ability to identify and address long-standing challenges in barracks conditions across the department.

By developing or clarifying guidance related to these weaknesses, DOD could better prioritize investments in barracks to improve living conditions for service members and help ensure that barracks housing programs across military services are consistently implemented and support quality of life and readiness.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD houses hundreds of thousands of service members in military barracks. Reports of poor conditions have raised questions about DOD's management of barracks.

The Joint Explanatory Statement and Senate Report 117-39, accompanying bills for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, included provisions for GAO to review DOD's efforts to maintain and improve military barracks. This report examines, among other things, the extent to which DOD has (1) reliably assessed barracks conditions, (2) made informed decisions on barracks funding, and (3) conducted oversight to improve barracks.

GAO analyzed DOD policies, budgets, and other documentation; interviewed DOD housing officials; toured barracks at a non-generalizable sample of 10 installations; and met with installation officials and barracks residents.

Recommendations

GAO is making 31 recommendations for DOD, including the military departments, to, among other things, provide guidance on barracks condition assessments, obtain complete funding information, and increase oversight of barracks programs. DOD concurred with 23 of the recommendations and partially concurred with 8, in some cases noting ongoing actions that would address them. GAO continues to believe DOD should fully implement all of these recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment examines how the services conduct condition assessments for barracks and, based on that review, provides guidance to the services on how they should conduct these assessments, including, as appropriate, revisiting requirements related to the frequency of assessments, the number of systems to be assessed, the necessary level of inspector expertise, and the model used to conduct assessments. (Recommendation 1)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense
Priority Rec.
The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment clarifies DOD guidance on minimum standards for assignment to barracks related to health and safety, such as identifying health and safety risks serious enough to prevent installations from assigning service members to live in a barracks facility or room. (Recommendation 2)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. An Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Housing (ODASD(H)) official reported as of May 2024 that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment (ASD(EI&E)) holds biweekly meetings with the military departments. According to the official, these meetings ensure leadership engagement and define a common purpose for the strategy to improve barracks conditions. Further, the ASD(EI&E) established a team in January 2024 that, among other things, is developing new barracks health, safety, and livability standards. An official stated that these standards will be included in updated DOD guidance that is estimated to be completed by July 31, 2024.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Army should update the Army's minimum standards for assignment to barracks to ensure they reflect DOD's guidance on health and safety standards for barracks once DOD's minimum standards have been clarified. (Recommendation 3)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Navy should update the Navy's minimum standards for assignment to barracks to ensure they reflect DOD's guidance on health and safety standards for barracks once DOD's minimum standards have been clarified. (Recommendation 4)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Navy, in coordination with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, should update the Marine Corps' minimum standards for assignment to barracks to ensure they reflect DOD guidance on health and safety standards for barracks once DOD's minimum standards have been clarified. (Recommendation 5)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Air Force should update the Air Force's minimum standards for assignment to barracks to ensure they reflect DOD guidance on health and safety standards for barracks once DOD's minimum standards have been clarified. (Recommendation 6)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Army should update the Army's minimum standards for assignment to barracks to ensure they meet DOD's privacy and configuration standards, as required under the DOD Housing Manual. (Recommendation 7)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Navy should update the Navy's minimum standards for assignment to barracks to ensure they meet DOD's privacy and configuration standards, as required under the DOD Housing Manual. (Recommendation 8)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Navy, in coordination with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, should update the Marine Corps' minimum standards for assignment to barracks to ensure they meet DOD's privacy and configuration standards, as required under the DOD Housing Manual. (Recommendation 9)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Air Force should update the Air Force's minimum standards for assignment to barracks to ensure they meet DOD's privacy and configuration standards, as required under the DOD Housing Manual. (Recommendation 10)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment sets requirements related to waivers, including requirements for tracking and documenting waivers and time limits for waivers. (Recommendation 11)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment updates guidance to require the military services to survey service members living in barracks in a consistent and comparable way. (Recommendation 12)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Office of People Analytics, in coordination with the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Housing, collects department-wide information, such as through the Status of Forces Survey, on service members' satisfaction with their housing, including barracks. (Recommendation 13)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment updates guidance on surveys of service members living in barracks to require the military services to include questions on effects of barracks conditions on reenlistment decisions. (Recommendation 14)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense
Priority Rec.
The Secretary of Defense should ensure that DOD develops a method to track and report complete Operation & Maintenance and Military Construction funding information in a combined manner for barracks housing programs, especially with respect to funding needed to improve barracks conditions, including both funding requirements and expenditures. In addition, the method should track and report complete Military Personnel funding with respect to funding needed to house service members typically required to live in barracks, such as service members living in private sector housing due to insufficient space in barracks, including both funding requirements and expenditures. (Recommendation 15)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. An ODASD(H) official reported as of May 2024 that the department has begun a phased approach to track barracks funding, starting first with specific identifiers for Operation and Maintenance (Facility Sustainment, Restoration and Modernization) and Military Construction funding required and expended in support of barracks facilities and programs. According to an official, DOD is currently unable to differentiate Military Personnel funding provided to service members who would normally reside in barracks. However, internal discussions are underway about developing a system or tracking method with this capability. Officials estimate completing these actions by June 30, 2027.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Army should develop and implement a method to ensure that the Army has visibility into all barracks Military Construction requirements identified at the installation level, regardless of whether they are submitted for funding. (Recommendation 16)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Navy should develop and implement a method to ensure that the Navy has visibility into all barracks Military Construction requirements identified at the installation level, regardless of whether they are submitted for funding. (Recommendation 17)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Navy, in coordination with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, should develop and implement a method to ensure that the Marine Corps has visibility into all barracks Military Construction requirements identified at the installation level, regardless of whether they are submitted for funding. (Recommendation 18)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Air Force should develop and implement a method to ensure that the Air Force has visibility into all barracks Military Construction requirements identified at the installation level, regardless of whether they are submitted for funding. (Recommendation 19)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment examines how the services develop and use mission scores for barracks and, based on that review, provides guidance to the services on how they should develop and use these mission scores for purposes of barracks improvement prioritization, including, as appropriate, increasing consistency to the maximum extent practicable. (Recommendation 20)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Army should conduct a systematic, objective analysis, that includes input from unit leaders, on the lowest reasonable rank threshold for Army unaccompanied service members required to live in military barracks, and adjust policies in accordance with that analysis. (Recommendation 21)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Navy should conduct a systematic, objective analysis, that includes input from unit leaders, on the lowest reasonable rank threshold for Navy unaccompanied service members required to live in military barracks, and adjust policies in accordance with that analysis. (Recommendation 22)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Navy, in coordination with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, should conduct a systematic, objective analysis, that includes input from unit leaders, on the lowest reasonable rank threshold for Marine Corps unaccompanied service members required to live in military barracks, and adjust policies in accordance with that analysis. (Recommendation 23)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Air Force should conduct a systematic, objective analysis, that includes input from unit leaders, on the lowest reasonable rank threshold for Air Force unaccompanied service members required to live in military barracks, and adjust policies in accordance with that analysis. (Recommendation 24)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment adjusts guidance to clearly identify appropriate reasons for providing BAH to service members who would otherwise be required to live in barracks, including identifying factors installation commanders should consider when authorizing BAH. (Recommendation 25)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Army should reevaluate existing Army policies regarding barracks manager positions for permanent party and training barracks, including whether barracks managers should be part time or full time and civilian or military and the level of training required, to ensure that the personnel structure is established at the levels necessary to accomplish mission and performance objectives. (Recommendation 26)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Navy should reevaluate existing Navy policies regarding barracks manager positions for permanent party and training barracks, including whether barracks managers should be part time or full time and civilian or military and the level of training required, to ensure that the personnel structure is established at the levels necessary to accomplish mission and performance objectives. (Recommendation 27)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Navy, in coordination with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, should reevaluate existing Marine Corps policies regarding barracks manager positions for permanent party and training barracks, including whether barracks managers should be part time or full time and civilian or military and the level of training required, to ensure that the personnel structure is established at the levels necessary to accomplish mission and performance objectives. (Recommendation 28)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Air Force should reevaluate existing Air Force policies regarding barracks manager positions for permanent party and training barracks, including whether barracks managers should be part-time or full-time and civilian or military and the level of training required, to ensure that the personnel structure is established at the levels necessary to accomplish mission and performance objectives. (Recommendation 29)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense
Priority Rec.
The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment establishes an oversight structure, such as quarterly programmatic reviews, to increase oversight of military service barracks housing programs, including roles and responsibilities for relevant OSD offices. (Recommendation 30)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. An ODASD(H) official reported as of May 2024 that the ASD(EI&E) will issue policy establishing an oversight structure and program metrics for military barracks. The official estimates completing this action by July 31, 2024.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment collaborate with the military services to define a common purpose and establish a joint strategy for improving barracks conditions. (Recommendation 31)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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