Navy housing in Virginia's Hampton Roads ranks among worst in country, new survey says
By COURTNEY MABEUS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: August 27, 2019
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The Navy wanted to know how sailors and their families living in privatized military housing felt about their homes.
Turns out, those in Hampton Roads are less satisfied than most. Their experiences with their homes and the company that manages them, Lincoln Military Housing, ranked 40th out of 42 installations for overall satisfaction, according to the results of a national survey.
Across the country, the Navy's housing scored 70 for overall satisfaction, or "average," according to the survey, which was completed by CEL & Associates.
CEL distributed 35,125 surveys among residents in family housing, with a total 8,416 responses, or 24%. A total 3,960 surveys were distributed in Hampton Roads, with 22% response.
Local respondents gave their housing an overall score of 61, or "poor," according to the survey. They also scored their service 61 and gave their property a 59, or "very poor."
That's down from 2018, when naval bases throughout Hampton Roads were considered "good" with an overall score of 77, a 75 for property and a 78 for service.
The service contracted the survey — a first — during the spring after widespread complaints across the military of shoddy living conditions, poor maintenance and bad customer service prompted congressional hearings. Previous surveys had been conducted by the privatized housing providers, prompting some residents to complain that they felt coerced into giving inflated responses.
Navy Region Mid-Atlantic commander Rear Adm. Charles Rock said the result "only goes to validate what we've been hearing from some our residents."
Savannah Beagles said she was among those who took the survey. She was already preparing to move out of her Lincoln housing near Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Virginia Beach in May when she pulled out an oven while cleaning and found mold, she said. She reported it but a remediation team didn't show up. She said she was instead offered the chance to move into a hotel. She'd already spent months in a hotel last year after she found mold.
Beagles decided to leave early.
"I'm supposed to be moving out," Beagles said. "I'm not going to a hotel."
The Virginian-Pilot previously detailed Beagle's complaints with her housing in March, before she met with Sen. Mark Warner with whom she again laid out her concerns during several public meetings. By that time, she had filed more than 70 work orders for issues ranging from incomplete work to a leaking HVAC unit. By the time she moved out, Beagles said those work orders topped about 200. She said she asked for a record of them from Lincoln but received no response.
Beagles is scheduled to go to mediation with Lincoln to try to recoup the cost of furniture and other items she had to throw out as a result of mold.
On Monday, after a reporter asked about Beagles' work orders, Lincoln spokesman Trent Duffy said it was a "paperwork issue." Beagles said she received an email with three attachments that afternoon.
Jarl Bliss, president of Lincoln, called the results of the CEL survey "completely unacceptable" in a statement, adding "we are doing what's necessary to reverse them as soon as possible."
Lincoln has added several improvements, including beefing up staff, creating a mobile app to make it easier for residents to track service requests, increasing outreach and developing a hotline that residents can use to phone concerns directly to Bliss, the company said.
Based on the survey's results, the Navy's housing providers must develop corrective action plans for any neighborhoods that score 75 or below. Though neighborhood-level data was not released with the survey, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Beth Baker said all of Hampton Roads' Navy neighborhoods, which number about two dozen, scored below 75.
The survey stated that declines in scores may have been the result of the negative publicity generated amid public outcry.
In addition to Lincoln's changes, Rock said he now views data every two weeks that tracks residents' satisfaction with work orders as well as their move-in experience. He said he's seen some improvement. The Navy is also planning to hire nearly 150 people to provide oversight of privatized housing across the service; 32 of them will work in the Mid-Atlantic region, which extends from Wisconsin through North Carolina.
Lincoln is also working with a mediator in Hampton Roads to work things out when a resident and the company hit an impasse, Rock said.
The Navy contracts with several companies to manage its housing, following a 2005 agreement to privatize military housing. Lincoln manages about 4,400 units in Hampton Roads. Warner, in a telephone interview, took aim at those 50-year contracts.
"Ultimately, if you don't have the ability to renegotiate the lease, you're not going to be able to hold these companies accountable," he said.
Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine have pushed for reforms in the upcoming defense bill that would, among other things, allow the families to withhold their housing allowances if they're in a dispute over housing conditions.
Kaine has previously toured homes around the Naval Station Norfolk and near Fort Belvoir. In a statement Monday, he called the housing conditions "intolerable."
Those reforms are too late for Beagles. She said she suffered from rashes and breathing problems after moving into her Lincoln-managed home and was taking multiple medications. After moving out, she's no longer on as many medicines and her breathing has improved.
"It's just been a breath of fresh air," Beagles said.