By Kelsey Kushner

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Top military leaders told Congress Thursday they are working on a new ‘tenant bill of rights’ after many military families in Maryland and other states complained of substandard housing conditions. They also apologized to those families.

The housing is run by private companies — and families have complained of broken pipes, black mold, and more. They said they had little recourse to get the problems fixed.

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Some families around the country say they had issues with rodents and termites—and took video of those problems.

A Fort Meade representative told WJZ that particular installation has never had a rodent or termite problem in any housing there.

Joshua Saindon—who lives at Fort Meade—told CBS News he did have a mold problem and warped siding on his home. Saindon said the problems started shortly after moving into the property.

The rent is covered by the military, which pays contractor Corvias Military Living.

CBS News reported Corvais’ CEO previously told Congress, “We let down some of our residents. I am sorry, and we are going to fix it.”

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned the secretaries of the Navy and Army —among others — who said they were finalizing a list of tenant protections.

They include provisions that would pay for housing if the problem takes more than 30 days to fix. It would also allow rent payments to be withheld from landlords in certain cases.

“What’s happened here is criminal,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut). He urged the service leaders to ask the Justice Department to consider opening criminal or civil investigations of conduct by the housing contractors, whose arrangements with the military housing authorities, Blumenthal said, are “a risk-free cash cow.”

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“How do we fix this kind of issue in the future so that it doesn’t get to this point?“ asked Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire).

Army Secretary Mark Esper told the committee, “We executed a plan within days of visiting Fort Meade to talk about what our expectations are in the chain of command. I think the visits by the leadership—both uniformed and civilian—are critical. But now we’ve got to do the hard work of renegotiating contracts, implementing this bill of rights, and have sustained attention to this issue.“

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said they wanted housing protections for service members “with teeth.”

Military housing has been privatized since the 1990s—and military brass said there is no need to change that. They would like more transparency and accountability—and to improve technology to quickly report issues.

Janna Wanner, who lives at Fort Meade, told Congress last month, “Mold was growing out of the wall of our shower… They told us — and this is a direct quote —‘Just let the mold fall out.’

Wanner told CBS News she hopes the new attention to the condition of military housing will last. “I don’t want the steam to be lost, and I want to keep moving forward. I want that change made.  I want families to be heard.”

The issues with substandard conditions have persisted recently across all branches of the military nationwide.

“In too many cases, it is clear the private housing companies failed to uphold their end of the bargain, a failure that was enabled by the Army’s insufficient oversight,” Esper said. “We are determined to investigate these problems and to hold our housing contractors and chains of command accountable.”

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This story was updated Friday, March 8, 2019. 

Kelsey Kushner