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)

Exclusive: Air Force to push Congress for military housing tenant bill of rights

FILE PHOTO: Assistant Secretary of Defense For Sustainment Robert McMahon; Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy, and Environment Alex Beehler; Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Environment Phyllis Bayer; Assistant Secretary of Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Energy John Henderson testify before Senate Armed Services subcommittees on the Military Housing Privatization Initiative in Washington, U.S. February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott

By M.B. Pell and Deborah Nelson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Aiming to grant military families far greater say to challenge hazardous housing, the U.S. Air Force told Reuters Monday it will push Congress to enact a tenant bill of rights allowing families the power to withhold rent or break leases to escape unsafe conditions.

The proposed measure, outlined in an interview at the Pentagon by Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff David L. Goldfein, follows complaints from military families who say they are often powerless to challenge private industry landlords when they encounter dangerous mold, lead paint and vermin infestations.

“Clearly there are areas where we have issues,” Goldfein said.

Added Secretary Wilson: “That could put a little more leverage into the hands of the renters.”

The Air Force push adds to a drumbeat of reforms to emerge in recent weeks following a Reuters series, Ambushed at Home, that documented shoddy housing conditions at bases nationwide and described how military families are often empowered with fewer rights than civilian tenants.

Wilson said they are working with the Army and Navy to push a tenant bill of rights that would give military families a stronger hand in housing disputes. She wants to strengthen the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a law that includes active duty housing protections. As one example, Wilson proposed expanding the act to allow base families to end their lease or withhold rent if their landlords fail to correct health and safety problems.

Beyond that effort, she said wing commanders of each U.S. Air Force base have been directed to inspect all 50,000 privatized family housing units in the force’s portfolio by March 1. She cited housing breakdowns at Air Force bases including Tinker in Oklahoma, Maxwell in Alabama, MacDill in Florida and Keesler in Mississippi.

In addition, she said, the inspector general’s office will launch a review of how Air Force bases respond to housing health and safety complaints.

Last week, the U.S. Army vowed to renegotiate its housing contracts with private real estate firms, test homes for toxins and hold its own commanders responsible for protecting residents. And on Friday, the Army issued a letter directing senior commanders to conduct inspections of all housing within the next 30 days.

The military action plans follow a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this month in which members of Congress sharply questioned private industry landlords and Defense Department leaders over conditions at U.S. bases.

Wilson said the Air Force is also considering working with Congress to renegotiate its contracts with housing companies to allow the service to withhold all incentive fees from low-performing landlords.

(Additional reporting by Joshua Schneyer. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Army calls base housing hazards ‘unconscionable,’ details steps to protect families

FILE PHOTO: Homes at Fort Benning undergo lead paint removal as the U.S. Army mobilizes to protect residents against lead poisoning hazards in Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S., September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Januta/File Photo

By Joshua Schneyer, Andrea Januta and Deborah Nelson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Deeply troubled by military housing conditions exposed by Reuters reporting, the U.S. Army’s top leadership vowed Friday to renegotiate its housing contracts with private real estate firms, test tens of thousands of homes for toxins and hold its own commanders responsible for protecting Army base residents from dangerous homes.

FILE PHOTO: A home at Fort Benning undergoes lead paint removal as the U.S. Army mobilizes to protect residents against lead poisoning hazards in Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S., September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Januta/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A home at Fort Benning undergoes lead paint removal as the U.S. Army mobilizes to protect residents against lead poisoning hazards in Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S., September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Januta/File Photo

In an interview, the Secretary of the Army Mark Esper said Reuters reports and a chorus of concerns from military families had opened his eyes to the need for urgent overhauls of the Army’s privatized housing system, which accommodates more than 86,000 families.

The secretary’s conclusion: Private real estate firms tasked with managing and maintaining the housing stock have been failing the families they serve, and the Army itself neglected its duties.

“You’ve brought to light a big issue that demands our attention,” Esper said Friday morning at the Pentagon. “It is frankly unconscionable that our soldiers and their families would be living in these types of conditions when we ask so much of them day in and day out.”

The Reuters reporting described rampant mold and pest infestations, childhood lead poisoning, and service families often powerless to challenge private landlords in business with their military employers. Many families said they feared retaliation if they spoke out. The news agency described hazards across Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps base housing communities.

The reports have already spurred a raft of reforms and investigations, and on Wednesday, U.S. senators pledged more action to come during Senate Armed Services Committee hearings.

Two days after those hearings, the Army outlined to Reuters its immediate and longer-term plan of reform.

FILE PHOTO: Weston Tuttle, 5, does a nebulizer treatment while watching "Frosty the Snowman" at their home in Steilacoom, Washington, U.S. November 28, 2018. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Weston Tuttle, 5, does a nebulizer treatment while watching “Frosty the Snowman” at their home in Steilacoom, Washington, U.S. November 28, 2018. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

“Our instinct is this is bigger even than what’s been reported, and we want to get to the bottom of it, get to the bottom of it fast,” said General Mark Milley, the Army’s Chief of Staff.

To do so, the Army said it will conduct an extensive survey of its family housing across the country to define the scope of potentially hazardous conditions. Reports in the past, provided by the private industry companies themselves, painted a “false picture,” Milley said.

Army leaders singled out mold infestations as the leading cause of health concerns. On Thursday, the Army ordered its private partner at Maryland’s Fort Meade, Corvias Group, to conduct air quality testing in the nearly 2,800 homes it operates there, and report back within 60 days. The Army expects Corvias to cover the costs, up to $500 per home. The directive came after Army leaders visited Meade, hearing first-hand about pervasive mold and maintenance lapses.

An earlier Reuters report described Meade families suffering from mold-related illnesses, ceilings collapsing in children’s bedrooms, and maintenance neglect leaving families unprotected from hazards.

In addition, the Army said it will begin renegotiating the 50-year housing contracts it has with its seven private housing partners, including Corvias. As Reuters reported, Corvias stands to earn more than $1 billion in fees and other compensation from six of the 13 military bases where it operates. Its fees continued flowing even as maintenance lapses plagued service families.

When unsafe conditions persist, the Army will seek to reduce or withhold fees from its private partners. And, it is examining ways to give service families more avenues to stop rent payments if problems are not quickly addressed, Milley said.

Mold damage on an air filter is pictured in the house of senior airman Abigaila Courtney at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, U.S. in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters December 11, 2018. Abigaila Courtney/Handout via REUTERS

Mold damage on an air filter is pictured in the house of senior airman Abigaila Courtney at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, U.S. in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters December 11, 2018. Abigaila Courtney/Handout via REUTERS

The re-negotiation process could begin as early as next week, when Army Secretary Esper will start holding regular meetings with the CEOs of its private housing partners.

Another problem the Army acknowledged: Military commands across the country, many times relying on the word of private partners, allowed housing hazards to fester. Now, Milley said, Army commanders will be tasked with greater oversight.

The Military Housing Privatization Initiative, the largest-ever corporate takeover of federal housing, began in the late 1990s in an effort to rebuild an aging military housing stock by enlisting private developers and property managers.

“Just because someone said it’s privatized,” Milley said, “doesn’t wash our hands of the responsibility to take care of our soldiers and their families.”

Esper added:  “We are acting now. More to follow.”

(Additional reporting by M.B. Pell in New York. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Exclusive: U.S. Army forms plan to test 40,000 homes for lead following Reuters report

FILE PHOTO: Professor Alexander Van Geen, Research Professor of Geochemistry at Columbia University, tests lead samples from Fort Benning, Georgia at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, U.S. March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Wood/File Photo

By Joshua Schneyer and Andrea Januta

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Army has drafted a plan to test for toxic lead hazards in 40,000 homes on its bases, military documents show, in a sweeping response to a Reuters report that found children at risk of lead poisoning in military housing.

The inspection program, if implemented, would begin quickly and prioritize thousands of Army post homes occupied by small children, who are most vulnerable to lead exposure. Ingesting the heavy metal can stunt brain development and cause lifelong health impacts.

The lead inspections would cost up to $386 million and target pre-1978 homes to identify deteriorating lead-based paint and leaded dust, water or soil, according to the military documents.

A draft Army Execution Order says the program’s mission is to mitigate all identified lead hazards in Army post homes in the United States. In homes where dangers are detected, the Army would offer soldiers’ families “temporary or permanent relocation” to housing safe from lead hazards, it says.

The Army’s mobilization comes after Reuters published an investigation on August 16 describing lead paint poisoning hazards in privatized military base homes. It documented at least 1,050 small children who tested high for lead at base clinics in recent years. Their results often weren’t being reported to state health authorities as required, Reuters found.

Behind the numbers were injured families, including that of a decorated Army colonel, J. Cale Brown, whose son JC was poisoned by lead while living at Fort Benning, in Georgia.

The article drew a quick response from lawmakers, with eight U.S. senators demanding action to protect military families living in base housing.

The Army’s planned response is laid out in military documents, including the draft Execution Order, minutes from a private meeting attended by top Army brass, and other materials.

One priority, detailed by Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy in an August 22 meeting, is for the military’s response to counter any sense “that we … are not taking care of children of Soldiers and are not taking appropriate action quickly enough,” meeting minutes say. “The Army will remain focused on the actions to assess, inspect, and mitigate risks to Soldiers and Families,” the minutes say, citing McCarthy and Vice Chief of Staff General James C. McConville.

Army spokeswoman Colonel Kathleen Turner acknowledged plans are being formulated but said no decisions have been made. “Out of an abundance of caution, we are going above and beyond current requirements to ensure the safety of our soldiers and their families who work and live on all of our installations,” Turner said in a statement. “We are currently evaluating all options to address these concerns.”

Old lead-based paint becomes a poisoning hazard when it deteriorates, and poor maintenance of military base homes can leave legions at risk. About 30 percent of service families – including some 100,000 small children – live in U.S. military housing owned and operated by private companies in business with the military.

There are nearly 100,000 homes on U.S. Army bases, and the lead inspections are expected to focus on the approximately 40,000 built before a 1978 U.S. ban on the sale of lead paint.

The plans depart from guidance that appeared on the Army Public Health Center’s website as recently as last week, which “discouraged” lead-based paint inspections in Army homes. The website has since been updated and omits that language.

Under the plans, the documents show, the Army would:

– Inspect all pre-1978 Army family housing units nationwide, including visual lead-based paint assessments by certified personnel, swipe-testing for toxic lead paint dust, and testing of tap water. Some homes will also receive soil testing. This phase alone, described as “near-term actions,” will cost between $328 million to $386 million, the Army’s Installation Services director estimated.

– Temporarily or permanently relocate families when hazards are found. “If a Family or Soldier are concerned with potential negative impacts from lead; the U.S. Army will offer them a chance to relocate to a new residence,” the documents say. “We must do everything we can to maintain that trust.”

– Conduct town hall meetings on Army posts to address residents’ lead concerns. The Army intends to do so with “empathy,” the meeting minutes say. “Tone is key and can be just as important as the actions we take.”

The documents leave some questions unanswered. They don’t say how long it would take to inspect all 40,000 homes. Also unclear is whether the Army has funds immediately available for the program, or would need Congressional authorization to set them aside.

The Army would ensure that the private contractors who operate base housing “are meeting their obligations” to maintain base homes, the documents say and would require them to show compliance with lead safety standards through independent audits.

The documents do not discuss whether private housing contractors would bear any of the costs of the lead inspections, or how any repairs would be funded.

In most cases, Army post homes are now majority-owned by private real estate companies. Under their 50-year agreements with the Army, corporate landlords operating military housing agreed to control lead, asbestos, mold, and other toxic risks present in some homes, particularly historic ones.

FAMILIES, SENATORS PRESS FOR ANSWERS

The Army plans come as base commanders and housing contractors face a wave of complaints about potential home lead hazards, and a rush of military families seeking lead tests for their children.

Last week, the hospital at Fort Benning, where Reuters reported that at least 31 small children had tested high for lead exposure in recent years, began offering “walk-in” lead testing. Some concerned families are already being relocated; in other homes, maintenance workers are using painter’s tape to mark peeling paint spots that residents found contained lead by using store-bought testing kits.

Lead poisoning is preventable, and its prevalence in the United States has declined sharply in recent decades. Still, a 2016 Reuters investigation documented thousands of remaining exposure hotspots, mostly in civilian neighborhoods.

Last week, eight senators, including Republican Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri, pushed amendments to legislation to examine and address the military’s handling of lead exposure risks.

In coming weeks, Army officials plan to meet with lawmakers to address their concerns, the military documents show.

(Edited by Ronnie Greene and Michael Williams)

Special Report: Reuters’ testing triggers lead cleanup at Fort Knox base

FILE PHOTO: Col. John Cale Brown and Darlena Brown pose for a portrait with their sons J.C. and Rider at their home in 2017. Picture taken 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By Joshua Schneyer

FORT KNOX, Kentucky (Reuters) – Fort Knox is famed for its ultra-secure bullion depository that holds $100 billion in U.S. gold reserves. But some families at the Kentucky Army base have concerns about another heavy metal: lead.

When Reuters offered lead testing to military families at several bases, the highest result came from a peeling paint sample one Knox family collected from their covered back porch. It contained 50 percent lead, or 100 times the federal hazard level.

In April, a reporter visited the home, where Karla Hughes lives with her husband, an Army captain, and 4-year-old daughter, who doesn’t have elevated lead levels. In a grassy area where children play nearby, paint chipping from an abandoned electric switch house contained 16 percent lead.

Lead samples line up ready for testing at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, U.S. March 29, 2018. Picture taken March 29, 2018. To match Special Report USA-MILITARY/HOUSING. REUTERS/Mike Wood

Lead samples line up ready for testing at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, U.S. March 29, 2018. Picture taken March 29, 2018. To match Special Report USA-MILITARY/HOUSING. REUTERS/Mike Wood

Several historic homes on the Hughes’ street had old paint peeling from exterior trim, porch or window areas.

Knox Hills, the landlord for more than 2,300 homes on base, removed exterior lead paint from many older homes in recent years but left others untouched.

When Hughes complained about paint conditions in April, the company sent a maintenance worker, who repainted a porch beam but conducted no testing.

Later, Hughes pointed out the copious black paint peeling from a porch handrail to a housing supervisor from Knox Hills. “That’s not lead paint,” she said he assured her. Knox Hills declined to comment on the episode.

A reporter was a block away and later watched as Hughes collected paint falling from the handrail. Lab testing showed its lead content was 28 times a federal threshold that would require abatement.

In response, Knox Hills announced a neighborhood-wide lead paint abatement project focused on porch banisters, several home exteriors and the old switch-house. Residents said the project involves around 40 homes; it included “complete removal of paint and repainting” of the porch handrails.

Without Reuters’ testing data, Hughes said, “this danger may have been left undiscovered and ignored.”

“Knox Hills is taking the proper steps,” said Army spokeswoman Colonel Kathleen Turner. No child living on base has tested high for lead in years, she said.

Knox Hills is a partnership between the Army and private contractors including Lendlease, a property developer headquartered in Sydney, Australia, that operates military housing at several U.S. bases.

“Our response to these concerns, as in all resident issues, are our highest priority,” said Lendlease spokeswoman Meryl Exley.

(Editing by Ronnie Greene)