Mold in Virginia military housing has uprooted families waiting for answers after several months
By ANTONIO OLIVO | The Washington Post | Published: January 6, 2020
For several months, about two dozen families at the Fort Belvoir military base in Virginia have been living in a hotel, forced out of their homes by a pervasive mold problem that has caused illnesses and contaminated their belongings.
Though a defense-spending bill signed by President Donald Trump last month is meant to prevent such problems with military housing, some of the Fort Belvoir families say their frustrating experiences have them looking for other housing options in the pricey Washington region.
"I don't even want a house there anymore," said Nicole Paynter, whose family of six — including her U.S. Navy commander husband — has been displaced since September.
Paynter said she's now planning to move the children back home to Tennessee, while her husband remains behind.
After what she described as several lackluster attempts to fix the black mold in her home that made it difficult for her 10-year-old daughter to breathe, Paynter said she no longer trusts her private landlord or Fort Belvoir officials who have worked to assure the families that they're on top of the problem that has affected 155 of the 2,100 houses on the base.
"We caught them painting over mold," Paynter, 38, said about her landlord, a New Jersey-based company called the Michaels Organization that manages several "villages" on the base. "We caught them putting damaged, wet moldy insulation back into our walls. The trust and the faith are gone."
Substandard housing conditions on U.S. military bases have become widespread, raising alarms in Congress after a 2018 Reuters investigation found numerous instances of mold, lead contamination and falsified maintenance logs on bases where housing has been run by federally contracted property management companies.
The problem has been acute in the Washington area, where thousands of military personnel who work in the Pentagon and other military installations often rely on the more affordable housing on area bases during their tours.
A federal class-action lawsuit filed in Maryland in November alleges that an array of mold-related violations has been routinely ignored at the Fort Meade military base, home to about 800 families.
At Fort Belvoir, U.S. Army officials said they're committed to ensuring that the houses are completely safe before the affected families — who have been put up inside area hotels, with the rents on their homes reimbursed — are allowed to return.
"Providing safe and secure housing for our Service members is a top priority," Joe Richard, Fort Belvoir's top spokesman, said in a statement. "We've made progress and we are still working to make things right for everyone involved."
A spokeswoman for the Michaels Organization declined to comment.
Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Mark Warner, D-Va., have led efforts to prevent future hazards, largely through housing protections included in the recently approved National Defense Authorization Act spending bill.
Under the law, the Defense Department may now withhold housing payments if there is a dispute about mold or other problems. Military base officials must also review private landlords' mold and pest control plans every year, and property management companies are required to pay for relocating families while there is an environmental hazard in a service member's home.
"These reforms will go a long way towards fixing the problem, and we need to stay on this to ensure safer housing for our troops and their families," Kaine said in a December news release announcing the protections.
Advocates for the affected families said the changes won't cover other problems caused by the mold.
For many, furniture, bed mattresses and children's toys have been rendered unusable by the mold contamination. Others suffer illnesses, ranging from headaches to respiratory problems.
The Fort Belvoir families say they've struggled to find a sense of normalcy while crowded for months inside two-bedroom hotel suites on the base.
"My kids, they're over it," said Abnie Hunt, 34, whose family of four has been forced to move twice since June. After their first home was contaminated, mold was found in a second house in the fall, leading them to their current hotel lodging.
Hunt said she and her husband, Bryson, a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant, are unsure whether they'll return to Fort Belvoir or search for another home off the base. Both will mean buying new beds and furniture — new expenses along with any mold-related health-care costs that will linger after Bryson eventually leaves the military, she said.
"It's going to place a hardship on our family no matter which way we turn," Hunt said.
Local churches and other Fort Belvoir families have stepped in to help, donating toaster ovens, blenders and other supplies.
"That helps stretch the budget a little bit more and allows them to shop for actual food," said Ashley Fischer, 32, whose family — including a 3-year-old son with brain cancer — was also briefly uprooted by mold. They've converted a portion of their new home into storage space for donated supplies.
The ordeal has brought several families closer together. They've traded notes on illnesses and shared stories about how impressed they initially were by Fort Belvoir's small-town charm, where neighborhood clusters surround a local school, a state-of-the art hospital, a grocery store and even a movie theater.
"I fell in love with the layout," said Amanda Brewer, 37, who blames the mold found in her home in March on her 8-year-old son's severe allergic reaction and her 13-year-old son's continuing problem with hives. "So, it still breaks my heart when I hear the next family has been moved out of their home because they found something wrong with it."