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Military housing now more like home

Military housing at Fort Bragg's Linden Oaks development.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Here's a housing story that doesn't have the words 'subprime' or 'slump' in it. Also, it's a story about Pentagon contracting that doesn't involve fraud, waste, or abuse. Government privatization that doesn't mention Blackwater or Halliburton. The Pentagon has awarded $20 billion worth of construction contracts to fix on-base housing for soldiers; and business is booming. From North Carolina Public Radio, Dave Dewitt has more.


DAVE DEWITT: Colonel David Fox runs Fort Bragg as Garrison Commander. He's been in the Army 27 years, and remembers every tiny apartment he and his family of four ever had to cram into.

COL. DAVID FOX: One of the first houses we ever moved in had linoleum tile all the way through it. You'd stand out on the front street, and you could see that the roofline sagged. It was infested with termites.

Those days, and those houses, are slowly on their way out. On bases across the country, private construction companies are building, renovating and maintaining nearly 200,000 homes. That's upgrading the quality of military life dramatically. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Linden Oaks development at Fort Bragg.

It's a Halloween party. Tiny ninjas, sorcerers and princesses are playing tag inside the development's ample clubhouse gym. Linden Oaks could be any development in any upper middle class American suburb. That it's inside Fort Bragg is a sign of how far base housing has come. Private First Class Nathaniel Williams lives about a quarter mile away from the clubhouse, in a 1,900 square foot townhouse with his wife Tara and their three kids. He remembers the old days.

PFC. WILLIAMS: You know when I decided to come into the Army, moving from my own home to an apartment kind of left a really bad taste in my mouth, cause like we have all this furniture, we have all these clothes, we have all these people. You know we're a family of five and we're right on top of each other.

That disappointment went away when the family moved to Linden Oaks, and so did some of the worry that comes when he's gone for long stretches. Simple tasks can become challenges for those left behind. Like cleaning a gutter or replacing a broken light fixture. When the Army was in charge, it was more likely to give a spouse a ticket for an un-mowed lawn than to help out. Tara Williams says privatization has changed that.

TARA WILLIAMS: When my husband's not here I'm able to call the men on the maintenance team and they just are able to assist me. I almost feel like I am a homeowner.

The military likes to hear that. Fort Bragg Garrison Commander David Fox:

COL. FOX: Five years ago, six years ago, the garrison commanders dealt with housing. That was the number one issue. That was the problem. I can't get something fixed. The house is in poor condition. Now, I don't hear housing problems.

John Picerne likes to hear that too. The CEO of Picerne Military Housing won the contract to build and renovate homes at Fort Bragg and four other military bases. Five years ago he gambled on this business. It looked stable, but his investors didn't think it had the potential for a big payday, the kind that developers were seeing in the frothy housing market then. Now, that gamble looks pretty good.

JOHN PICERNE: I remember saying to one of my board of advisors about five years ago when we first got into this business, you know I had a full-blown business plan and he turned to me and he said 'but what happens if the Army goes away?' and I said I don't mean to be glib but if the Army goes away we all have much bigger problems than a business plan.

That business plan is simple. Picerne leases military land for a dollar a year, builds the houses, and collects the soldiers' housing allowances. Pfc. Williams, for example, pays rent of $1,100 a month. The contract between the Army and the developer runs for 50 years, with an option for an additional 25. Just a few years into the deal, the army is so thrilled with the arrangement that recruiters are using the new homes as a reenlistment incentive.

In Fayetteville, North Carolina, I'm Dave Dewitt for Marketplace.

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