'Substandard' Maxwell, Gunter base housing has military families up in arms
By KRISTA JOHNSON | Montgomery Advertiser, Ala. | Published: October 18, 2018
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — Last summer, the air conditioning unit in David Karvwnaris' Maxwell Air Force Base home failed five times. This summer, after failing another three times and Karvwnaris becoming “outright combative and furious," his family, who rents their home, received a new unit.
Sticky days in the Alabama heat, however, have been just one of the issues he and his family have endured while living on base. And their experience is not unique.
Hunt Companies, which has owned and maintained the near 750 homes on Maxwell and Gunter Annex since 2007, came under scrutiny more than two years ago after then-Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey wrote a letter to the secretary of the Air Force, explaining she was concerned “that unacceptable housing conditions may impact the morale and readiness of our mission and the ability to recruit, train and educate airmen to deliver air-power for America.”
In the first house the Karvwnaris' occupied on Maxwell, this tour, the dining room ceiling collapsed after the upstairs bathroom water valve failed, causing the dining room and the mud room to flood.
In response, Hunt advised the family to avoid the rooms, despite needing to go through the dining room to get to the kitchen, he said. After one week of protest, Hunt relented and put the family in a hotel while the damage was repaired.
Then, the condensation pan in the attic AC unit plugged, leading to his bedroom ceiling collapsing. After that, the family was moved to a different unit.
In their current home, electrical wires in the mechanical room crisscross and dangle freely. With a background in electrical work, Kwarvarnis said if you brought a city of Montgomery inspector in, “there’s no way” it would pass code.
“We have building codes for a reason, and I’m just waiting for one of these houses to burn down for them to realize it,” he said.
“I can’t fault where Hunt was brought into because the houses were in really bad shape, but where they are now and the excuses they are still using is not OK,” he said.
“My wife is an officer — she’s senior leadership — so for them to pull this crap with us, I know they are doing worse to the enlisted kids that don’t know better or don’t stick up for themselves,” he added.
At the time of Ivey's letter, Hunt cited a shrinking staff and high turnover as the root of residents’ problems.
Since then, Hunt Companies Community Director Joe Johnson said staffing has increased by 25 percent. Additionally, the company's ranking, done quarterly by the Air Force moved from zero to three out of five points and annual resident surveys moved up nearly 12 percentage points.
Despite the improvements, however, many families living on base are dissatisfied with their housing situations, calling the homes “substandard.” To complicate matters even more, many families feel forced to live in the homes in order to avoid sending their children to Montgomery's public school system.
For the Scott family, the $1,200 in rent paid for their 1,600-square-foot home would pay for a larger, nicer home with a smaller mortgage off-base, Rachel Scott said.
In the six years they have lived in their home on Gunter, the pipes above their dining room ceiling have frozen and burst during three separate winters, causing the ceiling to collapse. When that area of the home was added on to the original structure, insulation wasn’t installed around the pipes, Scott said, which is why they have continued to freeze.
Rather than treating the root of the problem, she said, Hunt has instead simply patched the hole and repainted. After the last incident, maintenance workers chose to cut the line, so water wouldn’t enter those pipes.
The issues residents on the bases deal with regularly, Scott said, range from poor water quality, mold, the base pool not working, trash not being picked up, lawn care workers failing to show up at designated times, sharp metal sticking out on the playground and costly utility bills because of inefficient fittings and equipment.
She's a member of the Maxwell Gunter Residents United Facebook page, which was started a year ago as a space to share frustrations related to housing. Currently, there is an online petition to end Hunt's 50-year property lease.
Scott made it clear that by talking about her issues with her home, she is “not bashing the military, I’m bashing Hunt Housing. We have folks that are being deployed and fighting for our country, and these are the living conditions we are forced into.”
While Hunt owns the homes, the Air Force is ultimately responsible for the well-being and security of the airmen. In a request to questions regarding about residents concerns, the Air Force deferred to Hunt.
Allison Bennett, currently a resident on Gunter Annex who has also lived on Maxwell during different assignments, said her biggest issue with her home is the tree in her backyard.
One of the branches is hanging so low, Bennett, at 5-foot-4, has to duck to get into her kitchen door, she said. Every time it storms, branches fall off and since it covers part of her home and carport, she’s worried about the damage it might do.
She’s called a work order in to Hunt five times in the past year, requesting it be trimmed, but to no avail.
Not long ago, a tree branch that was nearly 50 feet long fell in the middle of a road on Maxwell, covering sidewalks that kids use to walk home from school, she and Karvwnaris said. Last month, a similar incident happened on Gunter.
Laurie Pritchard and her husband, James, created the Facebook group of which Scott, Bennett and Karvwnaris are members. They started it after James became a Gunter community resident representative. He attends meetings and shares the concerns of other residents, although Laurie said there is rarely action taken.
Hunt’s approach to repairs is a "lot of Band-Aid fixes,” she said.
“It shouldn’t be done that way," she said. "It’s their investment. They should be taking care of it for the long run. We shouldn’t have to be fighting them for what is essentially their investment."
In her home, the issues included “clearly worn” carpet with multiple stains on it upon arrival, paint on the walls not matching — with patch jobs sometimes done in flat paint and others glossy, cheap linoleum, cheap electrical fittings and consistent plumbing issues.
“It’s substandard for what we pay,” she said, with the cost based on the rank of the service member.
“Clearly Maxwell residents, the officers, get priority over everyone else. Which is still a concern, the enlisted — we are the workforce, we have the numbers here, we are still as important and vital as anyone else here,” she added.
When it comes to utilities, with each family given a rate not to exceed based on its size, Pritchard said they always go over and are forced to pay the difference.
This isn’t from over-consumption, though, she believes, but rather wiring that doesn’t match up and poor infrastructure.
“Our unit always seems to go over and speaking to other units, they always seem to get a refund. It doesn’t make sense because we’re running everything the same,” she said, adding that several families have experienced issues with their utility bills, such as finding out one family’s bill was actually reading another’s meter.
For her, and Scott’s family, the reason they chose to live on base, and remain despite the issues, is so their children could attend the base school on Maxwell.
Although they both sent their children to public schools before being assigned to Montgomery, neither felt Montgomery Public Schools were an option.
“Nobody would live on base if it was open,” Pritchard said of the Maxwell school.
“At six years in, my frustrations are if you can’t fix it yourself, call housing and deal with it the best you can because we have to be here because our kids have to be at Maxwell,” she said.
When asked to respond to the complaints residents expressed, Hunt Community Director Joe Johnson, pointed to the survey rating increases and said: "We are proud of the team's improvement and accomplishment of the past two years. With the trust and support of our Air Force partner we are confident this trend will continue."