The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘This is disgusting:’ Lawmakers blast companies overseeing military homes racked by toxic dangers

At a Feb. 13 hearing, Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) criticized the state of military housing, which is serviced by private companies. (Video: The Washington Post)

Military families described living in decrepit, dangerous and inescapable homes at a Wednesday hearing, where lawmakers expressed shock over the allegations of slum-like conditions of privately managed housing.

The emotional testimonies came on the same day as the release of a survey that painted a grim picture of living conditions at U.S. bases for thousands of families, including black mold, lead, infestations of vermin, flooding, radon and faulty wiring.

Families said their concerns have been met with resistance, and in some cases threats from property management companies and commanders to silence them.

Crystal Cornwall, a Marine Corps spouse, told lawmakers about termites falling though light fixtures at an air base in Mississippi and mice chewing through infant pacifiers at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

“I wouldn’t recommend my own children join the service, and my husband has been a Marine for 12 years,” she said.

Some families said their children have been sickened by toxic living conditions but felt they had few options to hold companies or commanders accountable.

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a former Air Force pilot, described the stories as “disgusting” and infuriating.

“They left you hanging. They put you in harm’s way,” McSally told a panel of three military spouses, describing the companies. “Somehow we need the chain of command . . . to be able to poke their finger to poke in the chest of these companies to say ‘fix it now, or you’re done.’ ”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he was left baffled during opening remarks in the Senate Armed Services subcommittee hering. “It gets harder and harder to shock me,” he said. "This is shocking.”

During the hearing, the executives struck a conciliatory tone.

“The situation is clearly unacceptable,” said Denis Hickey, the chief executive of Americas Lendlease Corporation said. Christopher Williams, the president of Balfour Beatty Communities, said: “When we fall short, we try to make it right.”

The panel of military spouses told lawmakers they would like options to hold companies to account, like withholding housing stipend payments until work orders were complete and satisfactory. In a surprising move, the panel of executives told lawmakers they would have few problems with that idea.

In a joint statement, Army Secretary Mark T. Esper and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley said they were "deeply troubled" by reports of unsafe housing.

“We will hold our chain of command and private contractors accountable to ensure they are meeting their obligations to provide safe, high-quality family housing,” they said.

Military families testified Feb. 13 on Capitol Hill about serious health and safety hazards plaguing housing ran by private companies on military bases. (Video: Reuters)

Robert H. McMahon, the Defense Department’s assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, said the partnership between companies and the military was important to meet the housing needs of families but acknowledged widespread problems.

“This is a failure of leadership on both sides,” he told lawmakers.

The Military Family Advisory Network conducted a survey of families after a 2018 Reuters investigation sparked congressional inquiries. In the seven days it was available, the organization said the survey received 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 I.G. 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 at safe bases, unbeatable commute times 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 her 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.

Michael’s Military Housing, 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 that it was not that easy and that they found it difficult, or impossible, to withhold rent or to 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.

Each of executives at Wednesday’s hearing agreed one chief problem was a failure of communication on their part between tenants and service representatives.

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 that 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 she 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,” she said.

Beckstrom was unmoved by Corvias’s statement.

“I question their sincerity because of the timing,” she said, citing the Senate hearing and investigations of 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 thinks 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?”

Read more:

Admiral defends Navy after disasters at sea: ‘Other ships weren’t having collisions’

Pentagon leader in Iraq for talks on U.S. military presence