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Fort Hood families file lawsuit over mold in military housing as company pledges to repair water leaks in 970 residences

Sgt. 1st Class Jesus Joseph and Emilee Brown were moved into three homes in 18 months at Fort Hood, Texas, only to be forced out by mold and other hazardous conditions. They had to trash the majority of their personal belongings and have not been reimbursed for the items, valued at $145,000. They are one of nine families to file a lawsuit Monday against Lendlease, the private company that manages housing at the base.

POWERS MEDIAWORKS LLC

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 15, 2020

AUSTIN, Texas — For the past six months, Courtney Hamilton has been told by housing officials that it is safe for her family to return to their house at Fort Hood. The mold is gone, she said they’ve told her.

Instead, Hamilton, her husband Sgt. 1st Class William Hamilton, and their four children have remained in a temporary home on the central Texas Army base because they don’t agree with Lendlease, the private company that runs Fort Hood’s family housing.

The mold was never completely removed, she said.

Last week, Hamilton returned to her residence in the Montague Village neighborhood to retrieve her mail and check on the house. In the closet of her son’s bedroom, she found a large swath of fresh mold growing. It was a spotty patch spanning about 5 feet and had spread onto the plastic garment bag protecting recently dry-cleaned clothes and it felt wet, Hamilton said.

“Initially, I just cried. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that they tell you that it’s safe and it’s clearly not,” she said. “There’s still mold growing in this house. You couldn’t see it before, but there it is.”

The Hamiltons are one of nine Army families who filed a lawsuit Monday in San Antonio federal court against Lendlease and two of its affiliated companies, Fort Hood Family Housing LP and FHFH Inc.

It joins at least six other suits filed across the country in the wake of media reports that began nearly two years ago on the poor conditions of military housing. The problems have often included exposure to lead paint, asbestos and mold, rat and insect infestations and delayed or inadequate response to maintenance requests that exacerbate the issues.

The crisis forced Congress to intervene, which helped push forward a tenant bill of rights among other reforms. But a recent Defense Department inspector general report found more improvement was still needed.

In the latest lawsuit, the Fort Hood families accuse Lendlease and its affiliates of systematically under-maintaining the housing at Fort Hood and lying to the families about the condition and repairs of the homes, according to the 83-page court document.

“As a result, many service members and their families have fallen ill due to exposure to toxic conditions, have lost nearly all their personal possessions (some as a result of living in multiple houses with environmental issues), and have paid their [basic housing allowance] for woefully substandard facilities. While Fort Hood is nicknamed “the Great Place,” some military families have found it is anything but,” according to the lawsuit.

Lendlease made a “litany of promises” to perform repairs without doing so and took active, deceptive measures to hide the extent of the harmful living conditions by painting to cover up mold, coercing third-party testing and remediation companies into issuing false or misleading reports and deleting work order requests, according to the lawsuit.

Families listed on the lawsuit are the Hamiltons, Sgt. 1st Class Jesus Joseph and Emilee Brown and their two children, Sgt. Jason and Sarah Kiernan and their three children, Staff Sgt. Stephen and Allison Shea and their two children, Staff Sgt. Adam and Tiffany Vaughn and their two children, Staff Sgt. James and Brittany Butler and their three children, Spc. John and Lilly Kelley and their child, Capt. Michael and Sarah Jo Proulx and their two children, and retired Sgt. Melissa and Samuel Douglass and their two children, according to court documents.

The families demand a jury trial to determine the appropriate dollar amount required for past and future damages for the military families’ injuries from fraud, malice, and/or gross negligence, as well as full reimbursement for their attorney fees, according to the lawsuit.

“These companies have proven themselves to be substandard, cheap, slow, neglectful, and duplicitous,” said Mikal Watts, of Watts Guerra LLP, one of the law firm’s handling the case. “The stories of the affected military families are consistent and horrifying. These families, some of which have endured multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, deserve to be safe at home. Their service to our nation should be respected. Their hard-earned base housing allowance should not require their families to live in dangerous mold and face catastrophic health consequences.”

Fort Hood officials are aware of the suit, said Tom Rheinlander, spokesman for the base.

Fort Hood Family Housing released a statement Tuesday that the company “respects the rights of individuals to bring claims, however we believe we have acted appropriately and are prepared to take all necessary steps to defend these allegations.”

“Our teams are dedicated to providing quality housing to the military families we serve. This is a job that we take very seriously and one that we are honored to have,” according to the statement. “Fort Hood Family Housing has policies in place that ensure we respond to all resident service orders within specified periods. We then work with families to diagnose and repair any issues in dedicated time frames.”

Military Housing Advocacy Network, a group of military spouses that advocate on behalf of base residents, said they applaud these nine Army families.  

“These companies must be investigated on a larger scale, their blatant violations of service member and tenant rights are only currently being held accountable through litigation,” said Rachel Christian, an advocate for the group. “Our military families deserve safe and accessible homes without needing to seek legal counsel.”

While Christian said legal action is a step towards accountability, at least two lawsuits on military housing have gone before a judge or jury in the last year with less than positive results for the families involved.

A Marine Corps family in California was awarded $2 million by a jury in 2019, because of moldy living conditions at Camp Pendleton, only to have a judge overturn the amount months later because it was excessive. A federal judge in Mississippi threw out one of 14 lawsuits against Hunt Military Communities at Keesler Air Force Base, saying the family did not show through medical evidence that their ailments were linked directly to the mold in their home. The decision put the remaining lawsuits in limbo until the appeals process is complete.

The stories of the Fort Hood families echo those of previous suits filed. They describe children suffering unexplained illnesses, difficulties with maintenance quality, families being moved from house to house only to find more problems and the loss of personal possessions and property because of contamination.

The Browns were given three homes to live in at Fort Hood in 18 months, “each with problems so severe they feared for their health and had no choice but to vacate,” according to the lawsuit. They had to trash the majority of their belongings, which Fort Hood Family Housing originally valued at $76,000. A second appraisal came in at $145,000, according to the lawsuit. They’ve received less than $2,000 to date.

The Kiernans’ home had walls that were so soggy when their 5-year-old son leaned onto his bedroom wall he fell through to reveal wet, moldy plasterboard.

Three months prior, Sarah Kiernan was pregnant and needed emergency surgery because the baby she was carrying stopped moving. That baby, her youngest son has continued to face health challenges. At two months old, he was flown by medical helicopter from Fort Hood to Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin, where he spent 20 days in intensive care for respiratory problems, according to the lawsuit. The baby, now more than one year old, still cannot sit up on his own.

“When your spouse is in the military, you know they might have to be sent somewhere where you fear for their life. You don’t expect you to be somewhere where they fear for your life or their child’s life,” Sarah Kiernan said.

The family has since moved to Fort Campbell, Tenn., where they continue to face the health problems that began at Fort Hood.

Lendlease’s partnership with Fort Hood, which is home to nearly 37,000 active-duty military personnel, began in 2001, according to court documents. It manages more than 5,600 homes at the Texas base under the company name Fort Hood Family Housing. Across the country, the company manages about 40,000 residential military units in 26 states, according to its website.

There is some indication that Lendlease is aware of “water intrusion” problems in Fort Hood housing. It began work this month on a massive effort to repair the exterior of 970 houses where “potential sources of water intrusion” was identified, according to Fort Hood Family Housing. Problems were isolated and identified by “a third-party Architectural, Engineering and Material Science firm” after an increase in work orders at the homes during the summer of 2019.

The scope of work includes 17% of the base’s housing and all the homes needing repair were built between 2002 and 2006, according to Fort Hood Family Housing. Nearly all the homes in the project appear to be duplexes of the same design in the neighborhoods Comanche II and III, Kouma II and III and Montague III and IV.

Fort Hood Family Housing has not responded to questions about the problems in the homes, the work being performed and the cost of the project. In a previous statement, the company said it has a “detailed plan for repairs” and the Army has approved the work and the cost, which will be covered from funds that exist for these types of projects.

About 150 of the 970 homes included in the project are unoccupied, and the company said the work is only being completed on the exterior of houses and will not impact residents. Fort Hood Family Housing also declined to answer questions about whether the interior of the homes will be checked for mold.

“No residents are expected to be displaced and we have worked with a third-party environmental consultant to confirm there is no health risk for our residents to remain in their homes while the exterior work is performed,” according to a statement from Fort Hood Family Housing sent June 1.

At least five of the homes mentioned in the lawsuit are within the scope of the project, including Hamilton’s home, located on Native Pecan, according to a website created to provide residents more information about the project. Hamilton said where the exterior work is being done is exactly where mold was found in her home.

Knowing the amount of mold removed from the inside of her home, Hamilton said it’s frustrating to see Lendlease do this work to the exterior without doing the work inside that will protect families from mold growth.

“I feel like it’s just a lie,” she said. “It’s a snaky way of trying to hide from the resident exactly what’s going on at their house,” she said.

For more information about the Fort Hood Family Housing repair project, go to https://www.forthoodfh.com/exterior-home-repairs.

Thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori

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Courtney Hamilton hung a sign in her window to point to mold found last week in her house on base at Fort Hood, Texas. She was told in January that the house had been cleared of mold, and the Hamiltons are now one of nine families to file a lawsuit Monday against Lendlease, the private company that manages housing at the base.
COURTNEY HAMILTON

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