Sacrifice For Squalor

A housing crisis hits Army Base Fort Lee and bases across the nation, leaving many military families helpless, ambushed at home. For the original story, follow the link here.

In the span of one’s service, military families will move six to nine times.

Each time, the family must reorient: new routes to work, new lesson plans that conflict with the previous, and culture shocks that are typical when moving cross country or continent. Logistically, it’s a divided front; the spouse in service reports to base early, while the other is tasked with shepherding their children and belongings from home to home. 

It can be exhausting. The hope is that everything turns out okay. 

When Patricia Santos, mother of three, and her husband moved to Fort Lee, Virginia, they didn’t know what to expect. It was 2017, and their second move since her husband joined the Army in 2004.  

“When a young family comes into the service, they’re just happy to have a home,” Santos said. “They go throughout their daily life and take housing for their word. They don’t want to cause trouble.”

Santos, who had worked as a temp for a base housing leasing office a few years back, saw glimpses of a darker side to military housing. “If they couldn’t find the move-in sheets, they’d throw it away, they’d discard it,” Santos said.“[Housing] threatened [families] with command if you refused to pay a carpet stain that was there when they moved in, and they would threaten to call the MP’s [military police].”

They were hopeful that Fort Lee would be different. The base sits just outside Petersburg and leases under a different housing company, Hunt Military Communities (HMC). Yet when they arrived, trash and debris littered the new home. 

A move-out inspection and subsequent cleaning are required for each home before the next family moves in. Santos said HMC insisted the home had been cleaned, yet there [were] still remnants from the previous family.

Six pages of damages were totaled by the end of their move-in inspection. “But it was a take it or leave it situation with the house, they said there were no other options,” Santos said. 

A year later, Santos spotted a water leak and subsequent mold in the wall emanating from the water spout outside. Then her children got sick; her son Victor, 5, began to develop dark rings under his eyes. She put in a work order. “They came, they turned it on, turned it off, said it was fixed,” she said. “They did nothing to fix the water spout.”

A few days later, Santos discovered a major water leak entering through the wall from the outdoor water spicket. She requested the floorboards and wall ruined by the water be replaced. Their request was denied. “He says, ‘we’re just going to paint over it,’ and I said no, this needs to be removed.” 

Maintenance relayed to Santos their denial was ordered by the director of HMC Maintenance, Jeff Koch. “Maintenance director told us he was only going to replace half of the wall and paint over the other half,” Santos said. 

Santos went to the housing office and reported what had happened; Additionally the mold, once contained to the wall, had begun to spread throughout the home. The housing office met with Koch and Santos at the home. “He’s touching the exposed floorboards–this is the director of maintenance–no protection, no goggles, no gloves, saying, ‘Oh there’s nothing here.’ I said, ‘Sir, that black stuff, that’s mold,’” Santos said. 

Santos handed Koch a petri dish she collected of the mold that had grown within the past few days. “He started shouting at me and I told him to leave my house.”

A few days later, Santos came home to a man ripping the floorboards up. The man wore no uniform or protection and had arrived unannounced. “I told him, ‘You’re not isolating the area, the area needs to be isolated so it doesn’t spread into the home, we’re allergic to this,’” she said. “He just started laughing.” Santos never found out who the man worked for or how he came to the house. 

While the leasing office at Fort Lee ordered Koch to fully remove the floorboards and siding, with the mold exposed the family couldn’t use the downstairs. Families are typically provided another living situation at an on-post privatized hotels when significant maintenance is being completed, but the cost must be covered by the family. According to HMC Fort Lee Community Director Charleen Herriott, there were no available accommodations.

“Nope, they could not move us anywhere,” Santos said. “So we had to live upstairs- my husband, the kids, and the babysitter, the whole time it took for them to take everything out― it was about three weeks.”

During this time, the home was barely inhabitable. The family became severely ill, as did the babysitter. Between her work commutes to Maryland, Santos dealt with flu-like symptoms. Her children, 10, 5, and 3, already on nebulizers, needed breathing treatments twice a day to combat previous upper respiratory infections. 

“They were instructed to take constant allergy medication and we were giving it to them every day,” Santos said. “There’s no need for seasonal allergies to be treated every day.”

A few days after the order was finished, Santos found a check for $100 in her mailbox. A HMC rep. told her it was for, “Giving [the Santos family] a hard time on the mold.” 

She tossed it back in the mailbox.

Normally, under Virginia law, tenants dealing with unsafe housing can exit their leases. They can make repairs themselves and deduct the cost from rent. They can notify their local agencies to enforce health codes. They can fight back. But on military bases, different rules apply.

If issues arise and housing refuses to act, servicemembers can’t hold out on rent; their housing allowance is mainlined straight to the property managers. Tenants are not inspect homes prior to move-in nor can they fight claims of damage reported during move-out inspections without the proper documentation. Tenants aren’t even allowed access to the buildings history.

“No one should have to worry about their safety in their own house,” said Shannon Razsadin, Executive Director of the Military Family Advisory Network. “The challenge here is military families don’t have recourse. They never even see the money. It immediately goes from them to this privatized housing company. So they don’t have the ability to withhold rent when they’re dealing with a challenge. They can’t say, ‘You need to fix x, y, z, otherwise I’m not going to pay you.'” 

In January 2019, the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) conducted a national poll for military families from any branch who lived on base within the past three years, and received around 17,000 responses. Questions asked participants to share their experiences and rate the quality of military housing. The results were scathing. 

Nearly two-thirds of respondents reported a negative or very negative experience with privatized military housing, with most claiming illnesses with life-long implications caused by poor housing conditions. Housing issues reported at more than 160 military installations across the country, including at seven of the 10 largest military installations in the U.S. A third of respondents reported issues with mold in their residences, with more than 1,500 reportings of problems with vermin or pest infestations.

Families also reported that when they file a work order or request remediation, it is denied or ignored. And when they try and report housing company representatives to military command, they’re bullied into silence. Some even claim they have received threats. Many fear retribution or negative impacts on their service members’ military career.

“We were overwhelmed by the number of respondents that we had, and it really goes to show that these aren’t one-off issues,” Razsadin said. “This is a widespread problem, and it’s something that needs to be acted on.”

Housing will push families to accept the home before even seeing it. Few options, based on their family size and needs, are alloted. And if they don’t comply, they have no home to move to. For many families with special needs, or expecting a short stay, on-base housing is their only option.

“I want an apology,” said Leticia Lewis, a former Fort Lee resident. “My family wants an apology. Everyone here at Fort Lee housing is owed an apology by Hunt Housing.”

Leticia Lewis and her family moved into a special needs home at Fort Lee in April 2018. In the first few weeks black mold had accrued in her upstairs bedroom. Then mushrooms grew up from the floor. It took three weeks to remove it. 

“Would you allow your kids to sleep in a room like this? No. So don’t do it to someone’s family who’s fighting and goes through things,” she said. “What we are all fighting for here is our health.”

Meanwhile her son was hospitalized in a pediatric ICU for three days and had to be put on oxygen. “My son has missed so much school,” she said. “When he was in the pediatric ICU at St. Marys, he missed seven days of school. He needed to recuperate, he’s five years old.”

What the Santos and Lewis families experienced is not uncommon. Military families at Fort Lee, as well as across the nation, have been living in squalor: black mold, lead paint, faulty wiring, poor water quality, pesticides, and a slew of vermin, insects, and animals have been reported in their homes. And despite recent efforts by military and congressional leadership, the concerns of families have been downplayed and ignored. 

In response to the survey findings, the Pentagon said the department is currently working to, “Improve responsiveness to concerns as we strive to ensure a positive experience for all military families living in privatized housing,” according to Heather Babb, a spokesperson for the Pentagon.

“DOD remains confident that privatizing housing was the right thing to do,” Babb said. “However, we also recognize there has been a lapse in overseeing implementation of DOD’s housing privatization program.”

“I think it would make a difference because it would make younger families have an idea when they move in where their rights would stand,” Santos said. “It would give them a clearer picture of what they can do and what housing is responsible for. Holding them accountable. I think that’s something that should’ve been proposed the first time they signed fifty year contracts with these people.”

Reports of housing issues have been found in nearly every military base in the country, including Virginia bases Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Naval Air Station Oceana, Wadsworth Shores and Fort Eustis. Of the 35 companies referenced in the survey, Hunt Military Communities was cited by 18 percent of total respondents― the third-highest of any property manager in the survey. Yet, the issue is not with the bases themselves.

Housing at Fort Lee is run by a private company called Hunt Military Communities, a branch of Hunt Southern Group LLC–one of America’s largest landlords. They, as well as other companies, vie for the Defense Department’s $4 billion budget in rent stipends for privatized on-base housing. Several families have accused the company of fraud, conspiring to conceal dangerous conditions, breach of contract, and gross negligence. Servicemembers describe feeling powerless, as they have little to no recourse. 

Housing privatization began in 1998, as an unofficial bailout initiative. The Department of Defense proved to be a shoddy landlord, failing to provide adequate housing for the approx. 204,000 military families who needed it. Competitions were held for developers to manage homes on more than 150 installations across the country; best proposals were signed to 50 year contracts.

Cumbersome military specifications were to be replaced with market-driven standards and a $20 billion housing-maintenance backlog of over a 141,000 substandard homes were to be renovated; military housing could finally compete for military renters. The initiative received wide bipartisan support. 

The initiative worked because close attention was paid between civilian and military leaders, commanders and partners, maintenance response times and customer feedback. But a financial meltdown in 2008, cutbacks in military staff in 2011, and the reinstatement of traditional budget scoring in 2014 reduced overall allowance-based rents, curtailed housing staff, and slowed project funding. The military diverted its attention to other priorities, leaving housing companies without oversight.

“I suspect that [military command] thought things would be better by putting it in the hands of private owners, but in the end they handed it over to a business and like any other business, they’re out to make money,” Santos said. “They’re not truly fulfilling the mission that the army has entrusted them to do, and that’s taking care of military families.”

Fort Lee consists of 1,474 families; the third largest training post in Army. One third of the Army’s Soldiers will either train or be stationed at Fort Lee in their career. The fort’s housing is on the newer side of Army inventory, with most of its privately managed units being less than 15 years old. The average stay for a family at Fort Lee is six months to a year, with few staying over three years.

“They are counting on us moving out quickly,” Santos said. “They are counting on the quick turnover rate, the high dollars they charge us for normal wear and tear. These profits come off our backs and our sacrifice.”

Amanda Vargus, another Fort Lee resident, says that she had to contact her home’s prior resident, who had lived in the home for four years, to find out what problems to watch out for. The carpet, to be replaced every four years by the lease agreement, had never been replaced during the prior families stay. A year into her residency, clear signs of mold sprang from the carpet. Vargus requested it be tested. She was denied. 

Al Williams, the on-post Housing Division Chief, told Vargus that seeing the mold was creating a placebo effect in her head. 

“If I leave a water bottle out, I can see mold grow in it within hours,” Vargus said. 

As a result, over the last year to nine months, Vargas’s daughter contracted constant upper respiratory issues and bronchitis. She’s five years old. 

“We live in these homes,” Vargus said. “These homes are not free, they come with a sacrifice. And our children pay the most sacrifice. They should not be ill because of these homes.”

Work orders can take anywhere from weeks to years to be completed, and often are completed without documentation of what was done. 

“Nothing that says Hi-tech was in your home and painted your wall, or we put in the flooring, nothing like that,” Santos said. “No specifics.” 

One Staff Sergeant said when he asked HMC to come and do mold testing, they said they couldn’t, citing an EPA recommendation against it. They hired professional testers and found penicillin in their bedroom vents.

“I have evidence right here where I told you my family was having health issues a year and a half ago because of mold and you told us to wipe it down with bleach,” he said. “When they stuck a phone up in the main central ventilation, for lack of a better term it looked like a wookie on the inside. It was literally furry.”

Hi-Tech maintenance, a derivative company of Hi-Tech Auto sales, have told families in the past that they are certified in mold remediation. At one point, Hi-Tech had vans decaled with a phone number and company logo. The logos have since been removed. 

According to The Institute of Inspection’s Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC), standard set by military bases including Fort Lee, Hi-Tech is not certified for mold removal. The company is also not certified with the EPA’s recommended National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA).

Several families reported Hi-tech would leave behind trash and packaging scraps scattered throughout the house and yard, yet no documentation of work completed.

“We should be allowed to know exactly what you did to my home,” Lewis said. “If you replace two screws in my home, please let me know. I shouldn’t just get a little ticket that says Hi-tech contracting people were in my house today. Okay, great, did they come in to use the restroom or did they come in to do work? I have maintenance crews come in and leave burger king cups on my back patio.”

When I called Hi-Tech for comment, they said they could do some maintenance on HVAC but not for mold. They said they were not professionally equipped for the job, yet according to families, maintenance worker have said in the past they are certified in mold remediation. 

I contacted the Hi-Tech maintenance manager, Ashley, who in conversation with families has said there is no certification for mold remediation. Families say otherwise. Ashley denied comment.

I called a second time on May 6. A man answered and said it was Hi-tech maintenance. Once I said I was with a magazine, he said he didn’t “want to be in no magazine” and told me to “fuck off.” When I asked if there was someone I could speak with, he said no, then yes, then immediately hung up.

Families report receiving online surveys for work that was never completed. 

“I had left for work for the summer and I kept getting emails asking to complete a housing survey on how they did,” she said. “So I called my husband and asked if they had come to take care of it and he said, ‘Nope, there’s no tag on the door, nothing.’”

One of the prizes for completing the housing survey is the chance to win two months of free rent. Since at least 2013, no one has been awarded free rent. 

“I personally don’t think that the incentives or surveys are truthful,” Santos said. “I think they need to come from a third party away from the Army and away from housing, so that they could get a more truthful survey.”

Santos spoke up at a Town Hall meeting in March. The next day, Herriott was at her door demanding to get in. “She was yelling at me, she was shouting, because she felt she had the right to enter my home and I felt I was being retaliated against because I spoke up at the town hall in front of the military leadership.”

In response to  the MFAN’s findings and a prior 2018 investigative report by Reuters, congressional leadership held hearings in February and again in March to address the concerns they had apparently missed. 

“This issue seems to have caught us by surprise,” said Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the committee. 

Congressional leaders and top military brass also toured homes and were appalled and left blindsided by the poor housing conditions and lack of responsiveness from housing providers. 

“We are deeply troubled by the recent reports highlighting the deficient conditions in some of our family housing,” stated Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark Esper. “It is unacceptable for our families who sacrifice so much to have to endure these hardships in their own homes. Our most sacred obligation as Army leaders is to take care of our people – our Soldiers and our family members.”

After the second hearing, committee members drafted  the “Ensuring Safe Housing for our Military Act,” which is essentially a tenant bill of rights. The bill would require installation commanders to withhold the service member’s rent from the landlord after officials have been notified of potential health, safety or environmental hazard, until steps are taken to remedy the problem — and the military housing officials and service members agree that it has been fixed. The bill is expected to be finalized within several months, though it is unclear when the bill would be enacted. Last, week that bill was passed in the National Defense Authorization Act.

Senator Kaine, a champion of the bill, stressed the bill was the only way to combat malpractice by military housing property managers. “There has been recent attention on the national scope of dangerous conditions in military base housing, including children poisoned by lead and lapses in oversight that have put military families at risk,” Kaine said in an Op-Ed. “Military families make enormous sacrifices in service to our nation, and they deserve safe housing.”

As mandated by congressional hearings, Fort Lee completed its assessment of on-post homes in March. “Our military leaders and detailed evaluators made contact with residents in each occupied home on post,” reported Williams. “Of the 1,474 family quarters on Fort Lee, roughly 42 percent were inspected.” 

From the initial assessment, work order numbers nearly quadrupled― from 194 to 850. 

According to military command, before the assessments began, the normal open work order totals for the maintenance team were about 100 to 200 per week. They are now dealing with approximately 750 open work orders each week. 

At the most recent town hall, 5,000 work orders had yet to be completed. 

Fort Lee Garrison Commander Hollie Martin with the fort’s garrison hosts the town halls as the fort’s faux-mayor. Martin also heads a housing hotline for anyone experiencing problems with HMC.

“The relationship between Fort Lee and Hunt Military Communities is a work in progress,” Martin said. “The focus on housing across the Department of Defense encouraged and empowered Fort Lee residents to come forward with unresolved issues. From here, we’re proceeding with attention to detail and cautious optimism. People are the greatest asset of the Army, so even one service member or family member living in an unhealthy home is unacceptable.” 

A roundtable forum was headed by Senator Mark Warner in April for invited families to state their problems with housing before military and congressional staff. What was stressed at the end of the day was their inability to hold HMC accountable. 

“My concern is, we may improve circumstances for all of you but if we don’t change the system, things will get better for a year or two and they’ll fade from people’s memories and your successors will be sitting here, telling me the same stories.” Warner said. 

“The people who these fifty year deals with these companies, what the hell were they thinking,” Warner said. “Congress is going to have to act.” 

At the roundtable, Vargus and other families at Fort Lee expressed their suspicion that inspection documents were being erased and maintenance documents were not being provided, in order to boost income and avoid blame for negligence. HMC denied our request to review any maintenance logs. 

“Hunt is to get work orders done within 10 days, but they rarely honor nor adhere to the appropriate response times for work orders, and when they do come to do fix things, they leave jobs incomplete,” Vargus said.

In some cases, the threat of legal action, medical impact, or outside assessment and remediation has been the only motivation for companies to act. 

Balfour Beatty Communities, one of the U.S. military’s largest private-industry landlords with bases across the nations including Virginia, was recently found systematically falsifying its maintenance logs at Tinker Air Force Base for years, Reuters and CBS News found

“It’s like they’re operating a bank robbery at a corporate level,” Whittington told Reuters. “I got to the point where I was waking up in the morning and wondering, ‘Well, how many people am I going to have to screw over today?’ ”

In 2018, 11 residents at Fort Keesler Air Force Base in Missisippi sued HMC over a mold outbreak that started three years prior. In 2017, environmental testing of the homes found noxious levels of aspergillus and stachybotrys mold. 6 families were driven 

According to the Sun Herald, the lawsuits allege that the mold grew in the HVAC systems, which led to duct sweats and water damage, a breeding ground for mold. And despite “repeated requests” for help, HMC had failed to address any concerns. Families involved in the suit are seeking compensation for medical bills, moving expenses, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. 

A system for compensating military personnel and their families for injury or death already exists in the form of disability compensation and life insurance payments. But in case for families like Lewis, Tricare and the Department of Veteran Affairs doesn’t cover all medical expenses. 

Minutes before the Senator Roundtable, Lewis got a call from the hospital. They informed her that TriCare won’t cover her X-ray screenings for infections she contracted during her time at Fort Lee housing. But she doesn’t blame Tricare.

“Tricare doesn’t need to be paying for my medical bills, Hunt housing needs to be paying for my medical bills,” Lewis said. “I had begged and begged for my air ducts to be cleaned. I begged to have an air quality test done. They took forever to get my air ducts cleaned. They kept denying me to have an air quality test telling me and my husband that it has to come out of pocket.” 

But the initiative, while at first promising, was never projected to succeed. According to a 1998 pilot report by the Government Accountability Office, the methodology used to estimate the cost and earnings from privatization were overstated, stating the actual savings would not be as large as DoD had originally claimed. 

Two years later, another GAO report concluded similar findings, concluding there wasn’t enough data to determine if the initiative would end substandard housing more economically and faster than traditional military construction. Despite these well-informed concerns, the initiative moved forward. In 2018, a third GAO report flagged more concerns and re-confirmed the fears 20 years prior. (Condense)

The cost of repairs to Army homes nationwide could cost upwards of $386 million, according to a series of reports from 2013-2016, by the Defense Department’s Inspector General. The report found these deficiencies stemmed from “a lack of adequate preventative maintenance and inspections being performed at the installations,” and recommended bi-annual inspections of all homes, though most bases failed to conduct these. 

“The Defense Department was told three years ago by its own Inspector General’s office it has a problem with unsafe housing. It decided not to act. A spot check of bases by the Inspector General found “pervasive” health and safety deficiencies. These included electrical and fire hazards, lead-based paint and “unmitigated mold growth,” Babb stated.

But defense officials rejected the recommendations. They would “unnecessarily increase costs” and “impose more government intrusion into a private business enterprise,” the DOD said in its official response. 

The Defense Department should not, however, get back into the housing business. The military can’t match market standards of quality and efficiency at comparable costs. Enormous costs would incur if the military exited from privatization. Yet the current system is failing the families of our armed forces. And despite congressional and military efforts to improve the situation, both parties underestimate the severity of these partnerships brokered so many years ago. 

Families agree a bill of rights is a good first step, but whatever plan is finalized for housing will require the standards set by the families who live in them. 

Even then, legislative changes won’t take effect until 2020; many don’t see themselves sticking around for it. Many families quit the service prematurely, for the sake of their families’ health. Vargus’ husband plans on leaving in July, on his 4 year anniversary.

“Yes I’m afraid of repercussions from both the military and housing,” Vargus said. “A lot of the fear for a lot of residents is financial recourse. Thousands upon thousands of dollars for damages that aren’t really our fault, so people don’t speak up to it.”

For now, Vargus’ daughter sleeps in a walk-in closet, for her own safety. It’s the only room without an HVAC system.

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