U.S. military families more negative about housing than landlords claim, survey shows

FILE PHOTO: Leanne Bell, 39, checks the air quality of a vent as her husband, Spc. Tevin Mosley, 26, looks on while waiting for a maintenance crew to arrive at the army base housing allocated to the family in Fort Hood, Texas, U.S on May 16, 2019. The family says they began suffering breathing issues, depression, and rashes they attribute to a mold infestation and were forced to vacate the home in March after it was put under quarantine while repairs were made. Despite the repairs, mold can visibly be seen on surfaces throughout the home. REUTERS/Amanda Voisard

By M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. military families are expressing far deeper dissatisfaction with their housing conditions than their private landlords claim, according to a granular survey of tenants at more than 100 bases across the country that was recently presented to Congress.

The survey, conducted by the nonprofit Military Family Advisory Network, was initially publicized in February. Three months later, the group has released a more detailed analysis of the results, providing a base-by-base look at the survey findings and a window into the problems most frequently cited.

For more than a year, Reuters has exposed slum-like conditions dogging the Department of Defense housing privatization program, describing how private landlords reap billions in payments even as tenants clamor for repairs. The armed forces began privatizing base housing for military families two decades ago.

The Department of Defense said it couldn’t discuss the survey, but is “confident that privatizing housing was the right thing to do,” a spokeswoman said. “However, we also recognize there has been a lapse in overseeing implementation of DoD’s housing privatization program.”

FILE PHOTO: Leanne Bell, 39, displays mold-lined baseboards at the army base housing allocated to her family in Fort Hood, Texas, U.S. May 16, 2019. Bell and her family say they began suffering breathing issues, depression, hair loss, and rashes while living in the home. They contacted housing maintenance repeatedly, submitting between 2 to 3 dozen work orders related to mold, HVAC, and air issue quality concerns over the course of 3 years. REUTERS/Amanda Voisard

FILE PHOTO: Leanne Bell, 39, displays mold-lined baseboards at the army base housing allocated to her family in Fort Hood, Texas, U.S. May 16, 2019. Bell and her family say they began suffering breathing issues, depression, hair loss, and rashes while living in the home. They contacted housing maintenance repeatedly, submitting between 2 to 3 dozen work orders related to mold, HVAC, and air issue quality concerns over the course of 3 years. REUTERS/Amanda Voisard

The survey results, built from responses by 15,000 families living in 46 states and 158 bases, echo the Reuters reports of widespread concern about housing conditions among military tenants. In all, 55% of families who responded gave a negative view of their base housing. Just 16% gave positive marks, with the rest neutral.

The survey results stand in stark contrast to those reported by private military housing operators, who annually poll a subset of their residents and release results that often list satisfaction rates above 90%. Those annual survey results can help companies earn Defense Department bonuses that, cumulatively, total in the millions of dollars a year.

In all, more than 100 bases had an overall negative satisfaction score, with 6,629 reports of housing-related health problems, 3,342 of mold, 1,564 of pest infestations and 46 of carbon monoxide leaks.

The study turned up deep pockets of discontent:

– At Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, landlord Lincoln Military Housing reported 70% to 90% of residents were satisfied with housing in 2016. The nonprofit’s survey, by contrast, found 10% of respondents had a positive view, and 58% a negative one. Tenants cited 204 reports of poor maintenance, 92 of excessive filth at move-in, and 78 of structural concerns. Lincoln Military Housing did not respond to an interview request.

– At Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, a survey commissioned by Hunt Military Housing said 90% to 94% of residents were satisfied with housing in 2016. The new survey found just 15% held a positive view, and 59% a negative one. Kirtland families cited 43 reports of mold, 24 of vermin infestations and 3 carbon monoxide leaks. A Hunt spokesperson said a survey conducted earlier this year by base command found 88% of residents were satisfied with their housing at Kirtland. Still, the company said it is working with the Air Force to address concerns and has “further improved our processes and procedures,” including adding a “Hunt Promise Helpline” allowing residents direct contact with corporate management.

FILE PHOTO: Leigh Tuttle uses a 3M instant lead test to check the paint on the laundry room door at the house of Krista Lindholm at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, U.S. May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

FILE PHOTO: Leigh Tuttle uses a 3M instant lead test to check the paint on the laundry room door at the house of Krista Lindholm at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, U.S. May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

– At Fort Hood in Texas, 71% to 79% of residents liked their housing in 2016, according to a survey commissioned by the installation’s Australian-based landlord LendLease Group and the Army. The new survey found only 15% of base families had a positive view, and 54% a negative one. Driving these results: 121 reports of poor maintenance, 82 of mold and 67 of dilapidated housing. In a statement to Reuters, LendLease said it has confidence in the results of the surveys it obtained from a third-party research firm. The company said it couldn’t comment on the new report without a better understanding of its methodology.

The three companies are among more than a dozen private real estate developers and property managers operating military housing on bases across the country under a flagship government privatization program that has been expanding since the early 2000s.

MILITARY HOUSING ACTION PLAN

The Air Force acknowledged airmen don’t believe privatized housing is meeting their needs, spokesman Mark Kinkade said in a statement to Reuters. “We heard that message loud and clear,” he said.

Following Senate hearings in February, leadership at Air Force bases visited 11,534 homes and found 5,102 health and safety concerns, he said. The Air Force and private landlords have addressed 3,855 and are tracking the remaining 1,247.

Army and Navy officials say they have yet to see the expanded results of the Military Family Advisory Network’s survey. The Navy said the new figures may not reflect recent efforts to improve housing.

Last week, Army Secretary Mark Esper, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson met with senior executives from nine private companies that manage military housing to discuss a proposed tenant bill of rights, modifications to incentive fees paid to the companies and other means of improving living conditions.

“We are taking immediate steps to resolve both individual and systemic issues to provide the quality housing and proactive management we envision,” Wilson said in a statement.

A Reuters reporting team visited 16 federal bases last year and spoke with hundreds of families, finding swaths of housing plagued by hazards that can pose serious health risks to tenants. Residents on military bases often lacked basic rights renters can rely on in civilian communities, such as the ability to withhold rent from derelict landlords.

Prompted by the Reuters reports, the military branches pledged to hire hundreds of new housing staff and have moved to renegotiate the 50-year contracts held by the private real estate firms.

Congress has held multiple hearings to question private landlords and military brass, and has examined the survey results as part of its inquiries.

Military Family Advisory Network is an Alexandria, Virginia, non-profit whose stated mission is to represent the interests of U.S. military families. Its study is subjective, based on opinions provided by participants, rather than on independent inspections. Its survey, conducted online, collected responses from a portion of the approximately 200,000 families living in U.S. military privatized housing. It gathered the responses over a one-week period ending February 6. Since then, the military has put some significant reforms in place.

Earlier this month, the group provided the more detailed results to the Senate Armed Services Committee, where members have sponsored legislation to create a tenant bill of rights, penalize landlords who do not quickly fix hazards and mandate regular and unannounced spot inspections of base homes.

Some who took part in the survey say they have little power in dealing with landlords. “We can’t afford to move off base,” said Megan Konzen, a tenant of Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, where the vast majority of respondents gave a negative rating. “We are stuck.”

(Editing by Ronnie Greene)

South Korea says sanctions shrank North Korean economy at sharpest rate in 20 years

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean man is photographed from the Chinese side of the border near the town of Changbai, China as he rides a bicycle along the Yalu River in the North Korean town of Hyesan, November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

By Cynthia Kim and Hayoung Choi

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s economy contracted at the sharpest rate in two decades in 2017, South Korea’s central bank estimated on Friday, as international sanctions and drought hit growth hard, with signs living conditions were beginning to deteriorate.

Gross domestic product (GDP) in North Korea last year shrank 3.5 percent from the previous year, marking the biggest decline since a 6.5 percent drop in 1997 when the isolated nation was hit by a devastating famine, the Bank of Korea said.

North Korea does not publish economic data, and comprehensive public figures on social conditions are nonexistent.

However, analysts believe wider sanctions last year are likely to make the economic deterioration in 2018 worse than 2017, which could add to humanitarian need in the politically isolated state.

“The sanctions were stronger in 2017 than they were in 2016,” Shin Seung-cheol, head of the BOK’s National Accounts Coordination Team said.

“External trade volume fell significantly with the exports ban on coal, steel, fisheries and textile products. It’s difficult to put exact numbers on those but (export bans) crashed industrial production,” Shin said.

Both Seoul and Washington argue that increasingly strict international sanctions imposed over North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile program have been instrumental in leader Kim Jong Un’s decision to impose a ban on weapons testing and to negotiate with international leaders.

North Korea has called the sanctions “vicious” but rejects suggestions that the pressure led them to pursue diplomatic talks.

The situation also worsened last year with international experts fearing North Korea was facing the worst drought in 16 years, though late summer rains helped avoid acute food shortages.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April vowed to switch the country’s strategic focus from the development of its nuclear arsenal jump starting his economy, but analysts say that will be difficult while sanctions remain in place.

“As long as exports of minerals are part of the sanctions, by far the most profitable item of its exports, Pyongyang will have no choice but to continue with its current negotiations with the U.S.,” said Kim Byeong-yeon, an economics professor at the Seoul National University who specializes in the North Korean economy.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said that sanctions won’t be lifted until Kim moves to give up his nuclear and missile arsenal.

INDUSTRY TAKES A HIT

North Korea’s coal-intensive industries and manufacturing sectors have suffered as the UN Security Council ratcheted up the sanctions in response to years of nuclear tests by Pyongyang.

Industrial production, which accounts for about a third of the nation’s total output, fell 8.5 percent. That marked the steepest decline since 1997 as factory production collapsed on restrictions of flows of oil and other energy resources into the country. Output from agriculture, construction industries fell by 1.3 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively.

China, its biggest trading partner, suspended coal purchases last year which cut North Korea’s main export revenue source while its suspended fuel sales into to country sparked a surge in gasoline and diesel prices, data reviewed by Reuters showed earlier.

Since then, however, fuel prices have stabilized and even dropped in recent weeks, according to a report published last week on the North Korean Economy Watch website.

“My best guess is that it’s a combination of increased smuggling, perhaps aided by China’s declining vigilance in enforcing sanctions and restrictions against illicit trade across the border,” analyst Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein wrote in the report.

North Korea’s black market, or Jangmadang, has grown to account for about 60 percent of the economy, according to the Institute for Korean Integration of Society.

“Shrinking trade first hits the Kim regime and top officials, and then later affects unofficial markets,” said Kim at Seoul National University, noting the squeeze would also be felt in household income and private consumption.

China’s total trade with North Korea dropped 59.2 percent in the first half of 2018 from a year earlier, China’s customs data showed last week.

The BOK uses figures compiled by the government and spy agencies to make its economic estimates. The bank’s survey includes monitoring of the size of rice paddy crops in border areas, traffic surveillance, and interviews with defectors.

HUMAN TOLL

Prices for food staples like rice and corn have remained stable under changing sanctions, and there are signs that a growing number of North Koreans have access to electronic appliances, often powered by solar panels, according to data gathered by the DailyNK website.

North Korean defectors in the South, however, say they hear reports of increased suffering.

“The economic status in Hamgyong area was very bad, according to my sources within North Korea,” said Kim Seung-cheol, a defector who heads the NK Reform Radio station in Seoul, referencing an area near the border with China.

“In South Hamgyong, some people died of hunger. Since trade with China fell significantly, foreign traders in the border area are suffering from poverty.”

The United Nations’ top aid official visited the country last week and said there was “clear evidence of humanitarian need.”

Other U.N. officials warn that aid groups face difficulties accessing international banking channels, transporting goods into the North Korea, while rising fuel prices hinder aid delivery.

North Korea’s Gross National Income per capita stands at 1.46 million won ($1,283.52), making it about 4.4 percent the size of South Korea’s, the BOK said.

Overall exports from North Korea dropped 37.2 percent in 2017, marking the biggest fall since a 38.5 percent decline in 1998, the BOK said on Friday, citing data from the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

($1 = 1,137.5000 won)

(Additional reporting by Cynthia Kim,; Editing by Sam Holmes)

Stranded migrants in Greek camp protest over living conditions

Refugees and migrants block entrance of refugee camp

ATHENS (Reuters) – A group of migrants and refugees on Monday blocked a Greek minister from entering the former Athens airport terminal, where they have been stranded for months, in a protest against their living conditions.

Dozens of protesters, among them many children, rallied outside a gate chanting “Go, Go!” and “Liar!” to Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas. One migrant handed him a crying child as he reached the chained gate.

The government wants to clear out the entire compound, which consists of venues used in the 2004 Olympic Games and the former Athens airport, as Greece has agreed to lease it to private investors under its bailout program. About 1,600 people, mostly Afghans, are camped in these facilities.

About 600 people live at the former arrivals’ terminal where Monday’s protest took place.

The protest, a day after local media reported that a group of migrants were going on hunger strike, was brief. Mouzalas said some migrants had tried to block food distribution at the camp on Sunday but the reports that they were going on hunger strike were unfounded.

“I completely understand their pain and hardship. We are trying to ease it as much as we can,” Mouzalas told reporters.

About 60,000 refugees and migrants have been stranded in Greece from border shutdowns throughout the Balkans, halting the onward journey many planned to take to central and western Europe.

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Greece vows to improve conditions in overcrowded migrant camps

Refugees and migrants line up for food distribution at the Moria migrant camp

By Angeliki Koutantou

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece, a frontline country for migrants fleeing to Europe from war and poverty, vowed on Wednesday to improve living conditions in its overcrowded island camps.

The number making the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece has fallen sharply this year under a European Union deal with Turkey. It stipulates that people arriving after March 20 are to be held on five Aegean islands and sent back if their asylum applications are not accepted.

According to figures from U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, 173,208 people have reached Greece this year, down from 856,723 in 2015.

Some 60,000 migrants, mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, are still scattered across the country, which is struggling to emerge from a debt crisis.

About 15,000 are in overcrowded island camps that have grown violent as the slow processing of asylum requests adds to frustration over living conditions.

“We are planning to have new, small venues on the islands, either by setting up small, two-storey houses, in order to empty the tents, or by finding other places … to improve conditions,” Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas told reporters.

“It will need time but we will do it.”

He said authorities would also set up small detention centres and boost policing.

Mouzalas acknowledged that slow processing of asylum requests was an “Achilles heel” but said Athens was hiring more staff to speed it up.

(Editing by Andrew Roche)