Sacrifice For Squalor

by | Aug 6, 2019 | POLITICS

At Fort Lee and around the nation, military families are plagued by unsafe housing. Here’s how some Virginians are trying to solve the problem.

In the span of a career in the armed services, military families will move six to nine times. Each time, the family must reorient: new routes to work, new schools, and the various culture shocks typical for a cross-continental move. It can be exhausting. 

When Patricia Santos, her husband, and her three children moved to Fort Lee, they didn’t know what to expect. It was 2017, and this was their second move since Santos’ 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.” 

However, when Santos worked as a temp at a military housing office a few years earlier, she saw glimpses of a darker side. “If they couldn’t find the move-in sheets, they’d throw it away,” Santos said. “If you refused to pay for a carpet stain that was there when you moved in, they would threaten to call the MP’s [military police].” 

The Santos family were hopeful that Fort Lee, 25 miles south of Richmond, would be different. Yet when they arrived, trash and debris littered their new home. Santos said Hunt Military Communities (HMC), who handle leasing for on-base housing at Fort Lee, insisted the home was cleaned — yet the family recorded six pages of damages during their inspection. 

Unfortunately, they had no place else to go. “It was a take it or leave it situation,” Santos said. “[HMC] said there were no other options.” 

A year later, Santos spotted a water leak and mold emanating from the water spout outside. Then her children got sick: her 5-year-old son developed 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 the wall from the outdoor water spigot. She requested that HMC replace the floorboards and the wall ruined by water. Their request was denied. “He says, ‘We’re just going to paint over it,’” she said. “I said ‘No, this needs to be removed.’” 

In the meantime, the mold began to spread throughout the home. The housing office met with Santos and HMC Maintenance director Jeff Koch at the home. “He’s touching the exposed floorboards — no protection, no goggles, no gloves — saying, ‘Oh there’s nothing here.’” Santos said. “I said, ‘Sir, that black stuff, that’s mold.’” 

The leasing office at Fort Lee ultimately ordered Koch to remove the floorboards and siding, but with the mold exposed, the family couldn’t occupy the first floor. Families are typically provided another residence at an on-post private hotel during large maintenance, however, they must cover the cost. According to HMC’s Fort Lee Community Director, Charleen Herriott, there were no available accommodations. 

“They could not move us anywhere,” Santos said. “So we had to live upstairs the whole time it took for them to take everything out. It was about three weeks.”

During this time, the home was barely habitable. The family became severely ill, as did their babysitter. Santos dealt with flu-like symptoms, while her children — already on nebulizers — needed breathing treatments twice a day to combat upper-respiratory infections. 

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 [you] a hard time on the mold.” She tossed it back in the mailbox. 

Under Virginia law, tenants in 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. Tenants may not inspect homes prior to move-in; nor can they fight improperly-documented claims of damage reported when they move out. Tenants aren’t allowed access to the building’s history, and if issues arise and housing services refuse to act, service members can’t hold out on rent. 

“Military families don’t have recourse,” Shannon Razsadin, Executive Director of the Military Family Advisory Network, told CBS News. “They never even see the money. It immediately goes from [the military] to this privatized housing company. So they don’t have the ability to withhold rent when they’re dealing with a challenge.” 

In January 2019, the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) conducted a national poll for families who lived on base within the past three years, and received around 17,000 responses. The results were scathing: nearly two-thirds of respondents reported a negative experience with privatized military housing. Housing issues were 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 mold in their residences, and more than 1,500 reported problems with vermin or pest infestations. 

Families also reported that requests for repair are often denied or ignored — and when they report housing company reps to military command, they’re bullied into silence. Some even claim they received threats. 

“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. And if they don’t accept, they have no alternative. For families with special needs or stationed for 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 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 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,” 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. “He needed to recuperate — he’s five years old.” 

What the Santos and Lewis families have experienced is not uncommon. Military families at Fort Lee and across the nation live in squalor: black mold, lead paint, faulty wiring, poor water quality, pesticides, and a slew of vermin, insects, and animals in their homes. And until recently, their concerns have largely been ignored. 

Fort Lee is the third-largest training post in the Army. One third of the Army’s soldiers will either train or be stationed at Fort Lee sometime in their career. The average stay for a family at Fort Lee is six to 12 months; few stay more than 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.” 

A year into Amanda Vargas’s residency at Fort Lee, her carpets began showing clear signs of mold. According to her lease, the carpet was to be replaced by HMC every four years, but when Vargas contacted the previous residents, who lived there for four years, she learned the carpet wasn’t replaced during their stay. When she requested that it be tested, she was denied. 

“If I leave a water bottle out, I can see mold grow in it within hours,” Vargas said. Over the last year, Vargas’s five-year-old daughter has had constant upper-respiratory issues. 

“We live in these homes,” Vargas said. “These homes are not free, they come with a sacrifice. And our children pay the most sacrifice.” 

Hunt Military Communities, who runs the housing at Fort Lee, is one of America’s largest landlords. Of the 35 companies referenced in the MFAN survey, Hunt Military Communities was the third-highest cited of any property manager included. Several families have accused the company of fraud, conspiring to conceal dangerous conditions, breach of contract, and gross negligence. Service members describe feeling powerless, that they have little to no recourse. 

Housing privatization began in 1998, as an unofficial bailout initiative when the Department of Defense failed to provide adequate housing for approximately 200,000 military families. Competitions were held for developers to manage homes on more than 150 installations across the country; those chosen were signed to 50-year contracts. 

The initiative received wide bipartisan support, and worked at first with close attention from civilian and military leaders. But it was never projected to succeed — according to a 1998 pilot report by the Government Accountability Office, cost and earnings from privatization were overstated, and savings would not be as large as the DoD originally claimed. 

Despite these well-informed concerns, the initiative moved forward. But after a financial meltdown in 2008 and cutbacks in military staff in 2011, 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.” 

Santos would like to see the DoD engage in more direct oversight of on-base housing and the companies that provide it. 

“I think it would make a difference, because it would make younger families have an idea, when they move in, [of] where their rights would stand,” she said. “That’s something that should’ve been proposed the first time they signed 50-year contracts with these people.” 

In response to the MFAN’s findings, Congress held hearings in February and March to address the concerns. “This issue seems to have caught us by surprise,” said Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Congressional leaders and top military brass toured homes and were appalled 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 hearings, committee members drafted the Ensuring Safe Housing for our Military Act. The bill would require installation commanders to withhold the family’s rent from the landlord after notifications of potential health, safety or environmental hazards, until military housing officials and the families agree that it has been fixed. 

Senator Tim Kaine, a champion of the bill, stressed that it was the only way to combat malpractice by 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 wrote in an Op-Ed for the Daily Progress. “Military families make enormous sacrifices in service to our nation, and they deserve safe housing.” 

After Fort Lee completed its Congressionally-mandated assessment of on-post homes in March, work order numbers nearly quadrupled — from 194 to 850. As of the most recent town hall, 5,000 work orders had yet to be completed. 

Senator Mark Warner held a roundtable for military families in April. At the roundtable, Vargas and other Fort Lee families stressed their inability to hold HMC accountable, and their suspicions that important documents were being erased or withheld. 

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

“My concern is, we may improve circumstances for all of you,” said Warner. “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.” 

Repairs to military homes nationwide could cost upwards of $386 million, according to a series of reports made between 2013 and 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. 

But defense officials rejected the recommendations. They would “unnecessarily increase costs” and “impose more government intrusion into a private business enterprise,” the D0D said in its official response. 

Returning the responsibility of housing to the DoD (as it was before 1998) would involve enormous costs to U.S. taxpayers, and has potential to bring back the problems that led the government to privatization in the first place. Yet the current system is failing many families, and despite Congressional and military efforts to improve it, problems remain deeply entrenched. 

Many military families agree that a tenant’s bill of rights would be a good first step. But current legislative changes won’t take effect until 2020, and many don’t see themselves sticking around for it. Instead, they are leaving the service prematurely, for the sake of their families’ health. Vargas’s husband plans on leaving in July, on his 4-year anniversary of joining the military. For now, her daughter sleeps in a walk-in closet — the only room in the house without a mold-infested HVAC duct. 

Just before Senator Warner’s roundtable in April, Lewis got a call from the hospital. They informed her that TriCare, the Department Of Defense’s military health insurance provider, 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,” Lewis said. “Hunt housing needs to be paying for my medical bills.” 

John Donegan

John Donegan

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