The management of military housing at the Department of National Defence is in disarray, with as many as 1,500 units sitting vacant and not enough consideration given to allowing soldiers to rent in the local market away from their bases, Canada's auditor general says.
Michael Ferguson's latest report, tabled Tuesday in Parliament, found the department has no idea how many permanent married quarters it needs, and in some instances is charging below-market rents for its 11,858 apartments, duplexes or row houses.
With over 10 per cent of its inventory sitting empty, Ferguson said National Defence needs to give thorough consideration to whether it needs that many units, but a lot more homework is needed before it gets to that stage.
"The question of whether they should divest or not has to really start with: 'How many do you need? Where do you need it?"' the auditor said Tuesday. "Do they need (almost) 12,000? Or do they need a different number?"
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The department would have to defend why it keeps so many units vacant, but in Ferguson's opinion, "it seems to be high."
Roughly 15 per cent of full-time military members live on military bases in housing managed by the Canadian Forces Housing Agency.
Ferguson said government policy requires that Crown-owned housing be provided only when there's a direct operational requirement, or when suitable housing is not available in the private housing market.
But the auditor says National Defence does not routinely look at what is available outside its walls, and the private market could in some cases meet the needs of members, notably in Halifax and Valcartier, Que.
Also, myriad regulations limit what can be charged, and in some cases rent for base accommodation is cheaper, particularly in Bagotville, Que., Edmonton and Winnipeg — a discrepancy Ferguson calls unfair to soldiers who choose to live off-base.
"In our opinion, when rental rates are below private market rates, it is likely that military housing provides occupants with financial benefits. Such benefits could thus create inequities between military housing and private housing occupants," said the audit.
Long-term plan lacking
National Defence agrees with the findings and is drawing up a revised accommodation policy that's due in the fall of 2017.
The audit was also critical of the upkeep of private military quarters — known as PMQs. It said National Defence has a goal of modernizing the units, but did not have an adequate and approved long-term plan.
The department has no clear idea of the work that needs to be done, the time required and the resources needed to achieve the goal, the audit found.
"We found that the agency did not have updated information about the condition of housing units to inform its decisions," Ferguson wrote.
NDP MP David Christopherson was outraged and accused the department of being more concerned about buying bullets and bombs than the more important aspects of billets and bread.
"I find it incredibly hard to believe that something as fundamental as where you're going to house your Armed Forces personnel has not evolved to a fine art," Christopherson said.
"It's like finding out they can't feed them."