Black mold, rats and lead: Survey of military families paints slum-like picture of housing on US bases
By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: February 13, 2019
For thousands of servicemembers and their families, military housing is decrepit, dangerous and inescapable, according to survey results released Wednesday by an armed services advisory organization.
The grievances paint a picture of slum-like conditions at bases across the United States, including black mold, lead, infestations of vermin, flooding, radon and faulty wiring.
Tenants say their complaints have been met with resistance, and in some cases threats from property management companies and commanders to silence them. Some families say their children have been sickened by toxic living conditions but feel there is no recourse; respondents suggested they cannot withhold rent payments as leverage for improvements.
The survey was conducted by the Military Family Advisory Network after a 2018 Reuters investigation sparked congressional inquiries. In the seven days it was available, the organization said the survey received a cascade of more than 16,000 respondents eager to express simmering frustrations.
More than half of the respondents, 56 percent, reported a "negative" or "very negative" opinion of their living conditions, which the group concluded showed a "systemic problem" that defies location, rank and branch of service.
"No one should be worried about their safety in their own home," said Shannon Raszadin, the executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network. Health concerns and repairs have become "all-consuming" for many families, she told The Washington Post, diverting their focus from military duties and upcoming deployments.
In 1996, the Pentagon reported to Congress that federally run housing was so badly neglected that it posed the risk of "collapsing the force." Privatization began the same year under the Military Housing Privatization Initiative, created specifically to address poor living conditions and the shortage of "quality affordable private housing."
Contractors moved in to absorb reconstruction costs in exchange for the steady flow of income from 50-year leases.
Since then, 99 percent of on-base housing has been privatized. But families were not as happy as shareholders; a 2015 Pentagon inspector general report found "pervasive" health and safety hazards at military homes operated by such companies, and the IG blamed poor maintenance and oversight.
About 15 private real estate companies partner with the Army, Air Force and Navy to manage about 200,000 units, a Reuters investigation found, but the Pentagon has not said how much of housing stipends paid to troops flow to the companies as rent payments. Reuters estimated it was $3.9 billion in 2018 alone.
Some of these companies advertise high-quality homes and positive customer ratings, with photos of happy families splashed across websites.
None of them showed the toxic mold blooms that stratified in Amie Norquist's home at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa or foretold the months of ailments the family faced.
Norquist, her Army husband and their four children moved into their Florida home in July, she told The Post. Shortly thereafter, their health problems mushroomed. One child went to the emergency room with breathing problems. Another developed pneumonia, she said.
Spores ringed an air duct, photos provided to The Post show. Instead of replacing sub-flooring, a contractor referred by the property manager, Harbor Bay, sanded through the mold but didn't cover the family's clothes, furniture and carpets, she said, bombarding their home with toxic spores as they huddled in a hotel room for nearly two months.
MacDill Air Force Base, the parent company of Harbor Bay, did not respond to a request for comment.
Once the family came back in October, the real health problems began. Her husband needed an inhaler despite having no history of asthma, and their daughter Elise's respiratory problems were linked to mold. The family was forced to move off-base.
Elise, 3, was given a working diagnosis of chronic inflammatory response syndrome caused by a water-damaged home, a Tampa doctor's letter shows. The condition can alter brain function and destabilize the autoimmune system, the doctor warned.
"It's been extremely traumatic for our family," Norquist said.
Companies rely on performance incentives for additional profit, which is paid by military installations. MacDill's command penalized Harbor Bay for a rash of other mold problems, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
In a statement, the Pentagon said tenants can resolve issues by withholding rent payments and contacting the management companies or their base's housing office. They can also escalate their cases to installation commanders or an inspector general, said Heather Babb, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Respondents to the survey said it was that not easy and that they found it difficult, or impossible, to withhold rent or pressure commanders and companies to intervene in emergencies. Several families interviewed "were unwilling to come forward publicly because they were afraid of retaliation or negative impact on their service member's career," the survey said.
A Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with military families, private military home companies and defense officials is scheduled for Wednesday.
At Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Heather Beckstrom believes her daughter's epilepsy, her son's cancer diagnosis and her other son's cleft palate are linked to the untreated sewer water from a chronically overflowing toilet that sent several inches of water gushing onto the floor. It occurred so frequently and forcefully, she said, that a water line was visible on the stucco from the outside.
The Mayo Clinic, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute have suggested environmental hazards such as untreated wastewater can play a role in those conditions. Beckstrom, 37, said her family's medical problems began after they moved into the home in February 2011 but does not have medically conclusive statements from doctors that point to a cause.
Her request to move houses was denied in October 2012 by Corvias, the property manager, but was quickly reversed and granted on grounds of home safety concerns rather than health concerns, she said.
In a statement, Corvias, acknowledged failures and said it instituted measures to improve service quality, measures such as fast response repair times and a bigger residential support staff for the 27,000 military homes in its portfolio.
"We know we have let down some of our residents; we know what it takes to serve our residents, and we are fixing it," said Kelly Douglas, a company spokeswoman.
The privatization effort at first prompted cost-cutting, Douglas said, triggered "lower-touch service," fewer staff members and less communication with residents. "For that we are sorry, but we are committed to making whatever changes are necessary to balance economics with great resident service," Douglas said.
Beckstrom was unmoved by Corvias' statement.
"I question their sincerity because of the timing," she said, citing the Senate hearing and investigations into the company by Reuters. "The damage has been done long-term."
An online petition titled "Hold Corvias Accountable" garnered more than 3,300 signatures.
At the time Beckstrom lived on-base, Fort Bragg was experiencing an epidemic of infant deaths. In one home alone, three infants from three families died, ProPublica reported, igniting concern that there were common environmental hazards.
Norquist think the fight has been so pronounced that it has affected the military's effort abroad. Her husband's deployment was postponed after the house and medical problems arose. Now his asthma has held him back indefinitely.
"This has been detrimental to force readiness for him," she said. "How can he deploy and defend the country when he's worried about his family surviving?"