In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, the families accused Corvias Property Management, a real estate company that has been at the center of a national scandal over privatized military housing, of 14 charges including gross negligence and fraud.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Secretary of Defense did not respond to a request for comment. A Corvias spokeswoman said the company is aware of the suit, adding that it “does not reflect the significant resources, attention and rigor that has been brought to assuring quality resident housing.”
Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), whose District includes the area around Fort Meade, said in a statement that his office has been in “constant contact” with high-level Army officials about the conditions at Fort Meade, adding that members of his staff have visited the base to see for themselves.
“Corvias has taken some steps to improve housing conditions, but it’s clear that, after nine months, they are still unacceptable,” Ruppersberger said, later adding: “Based on my conversations with my constituents at Fort Meade, I suspect the problem is worse than we realize at this point.”
The suit, filed by the law firm Covington & Burling, alleges neglect and mismanagement at Fort Meade, an Army installation near Baltimore that is also the home of the National Security Agency.
The lawsuit claims one family returned home from a funeral to find their townhouse flooded because the property manager left the washing machine disconnected. Another describes being moved into a temporary townhouse to escape their previous mold-infested one, only to find urine on the toilet seat, peanut butter smeared on the stairs and more mold.
Derek Buitrago, a Navy hospital corpsman, lived at Fort Meade for two-and-a-half years with his wife, Sandy, and their two young children. Buitrago took a second job and sold his blood so he could cover the extra expenses of dealing with the mold himself, his attorney and his wife said. When he tried to move out because of the mold but before the lease ended, the family faced a $600 fee they couldn’t afford, the complaint alleges.
Buitrago is among several plaintiffs who found it financially difficult to relocate, something exacerbated by a system some say favors profit-minded landlords over tenants. Under the terms of their leases with the government, property managers like Corvias collect the full amount of service members’ housing allowances, making it financially impossible for some lower-income families to move off base.
The problems at Fort Meade are inherited from a 1997 military privatization drive in which developers such as Corvias received long-term lease agreements, federal loans and other subsidies. The Defense Department privatized some military housing in the hope of shrinking the bureaucracy and also improving customer service, assuming that private companies will be more efficient in their operations.
But the lawsuit filed Tuesday is the latest disclosure to raise serious questions about whether this approach is working, as service members and their spouses draw attention to abhorrent living conditions on bases across the country.
A 2018 Reuters investigation detailed how Corvias founder John Picerne collected hundreds of millions in fees and equity returns while military families languished in defunct housing. In a Feb. 13 congressional hearing that examined Corvias-managed properties in North Carolina, Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a retired Air Force officer, said of the mold: “This is disgusting.”
“We went to the private sector because the private sector, unlike the bureaucracy of the government, is supposed to better, more innovative, more responsive, more able to do customer service for our troops and their families,” McSally said.
“Instead of being partners with our troops,” McSally told military family members who testified that day, “they left you hanging. They put you in harm’s way.”
Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said this week that he has “underscored to corporate leaders at Corvias" that they need to handle maintenance requests better.
“The troubling experiences of those families is not only wrong, it must be noted that they detract from both the morale and the missions of our service members,” Cardin said in a statement. "These families, which have sacrificed so much in order to answer the call of duty anywhere in the world that they are needed, should never have to worry about the health and safety of their families on the home front.”
For the Buitrago family, who now live at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the house at Fort Meade was their first after they were married.
Sandy Buitrago says Corvias rarely followed through on maintenance requests even though the home had a recurring problem with water seeping in around the windows. They rented their own dehumidifiers, air purifiers and carpet cleaners to deal with the excess water, something that strained their finances, she said.
“At Fort Meade a lot of the issues that we had at home became our responsibility,” Sandy Buitrago told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “Even when [Corvias representatives] would come out, it was difficult to get a straight answer out of them,” she said.
When a February 2019 inspection found mold in the family’s bedrooms and on the furniture, a Corvias representative said no remediation was needed and recommended that they shampoo their couch, the complaint alleges.
The Nunez family lived at a Corvias property on Fort Meade for close to four years before they discovered rotting and moldy insulation in their attic, the lawsuit alleges. They moved out that day.
Liza Nunez, whose husband, Alex, was stationed there as an Air Force officer, said in an interview she and her two children had experienced health problems throughout their time at Fort Meade, including allergies to mold that matched the types found in the house. Her two children experienced severe respiratory problems, she said, with both of them requiring surgery at one point.
“My two little ones and myself were constantly sick,” she said. “We would be in the house for weekends trying to recover, not knowing that the house is what was making us sick.”