Housing Companies Pressuring Military Families into Silence About Poor Conditions

Crista Gyates, a resident at Balfour Beatty Housing, raises the American flag March 18, 2019, at her home in Bennett Shores East, an on-base military housing community at Naval Station Mayport. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin Bowser)
Crista Gyates, a resident at Balfour Beatty Housing, raises the American flag March 18, 2019, at her home in Bennett Shores East, an on-base military housing community at Naval Station Mayport. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin Bowser)

This article by Haley Britzky originally appeared on Task & Purpose, a digital news and culture publication dedicated to military and veterans issues.

Thom Tillis was angry.

During a March 7 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, the Republican senator from North Carolina told each of the military service chiefs and secretaries that he'd learned of private military housing providers asking tenants to sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for "some sort of a bonus."

"I don't know if y'all are aware of this," Tillis said, waving what appeared to be a copy of an NDA. "But here's what I'd like to find out if we can do immediately: Rescind every damn one of these that have been signed. Because it looks to me -- and I don't mean to be cynical -- but this is a practice by the housing providers, they better come up with a damn good reason for having someone sign onto this, because I've been a landlord before. It would have never occurred to me to say, 'I want you to sign away your right to say you're living in inadequate conditions.'"

After thanking Tillis for bringing to light "additional revelations" such as the NDA issues, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) then asked the witnesses whether they had ever heard of this, to which each service secretary said no.

The secretaries' answers about housing companies asking tenants to sign NDAs in exchange for a bonus were truthful, but the Navy, Army, and Air Force are aware of NDAs being offered to service members and their families under other conditions. And in at least one case with the Navy, the service suggested it.

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Beth Davidson was 23 weeks pregnant with her second son when she was told she might lose her baby.

In the summer of 2016, Davidson -- who is being identified with a pseudonym in this story to respect her family's privacy, as her husband still serves -- was experiencing complications with her pregnancy. She went to her obstetrician, who expressed concern that her baby might not make it.

"I was in shock," she told Task & Purpose. "I called my friend and just cried."

Her doctor ordered blood work, which showed that her white blood cell count was much higher than it should have been. Was she working around chemicals, he asked her. She wasn't. She wasn't working at all; Davidson was a stay-at-home mom with her first son, while her husband worked as a Marine captain.

"He asked me if I was working with chemicals. I said, 'No,'" Davidson told Task & Purpose. "And then I pulled out my phone and said, 'But look at this. Could this be it?' And I showed him a picture of the inside of our [air] ducts, and he said, 'Well, absolutely.'"

This followed months of fighting with the private military housing provider that managed her family's housing in New Orleans, Patrician Management, over what she said was mold in her air ducts. A Patrician manager even came to do a walk-through of the house to check a variety of potential issues, and assured Davidson that what she was concerned about wasn't mold because if it were, it would be everywhere.

"I mean it comes through the walls; it's not going to just stay there. You would see mold already growing," the manager said, according to what Davidson described as an audio recording of the walk-through, which was provided to Task & Purpose.

The manager that Davidson said came to her house, Brenda Davis, along with another manager that Davidson said she dealt with, Mark Wesley, did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Task & Purpose. Patrician Management also did not respond to requests for comment.

Davidson provided Task & Purpose with a number of emails, recordings, and photos documenting her family's experience with Patrician from May 2015 to September 2017. She successfully gave birth to her son, now two years old, though she says he's developed respiratory problems. Her oldest son, now five, was diagnosed with autism while living in the Patrician-managed home, and has since had to see a number of specialists for behavioral issues, an iron deficiency, and other medical problems. Davidson believes her housing conditions contributed to her children's health issues.

After consulting with her in 2016, Davidson's doctor ended up writing a note to Patrician, which was provided to Task & Purpose, saying, "It is medically necessary at this time for the patient [sic] landlord to have all of the air ducts cleaned and checked for mold. If this is not done, it will be a hazard to patient's health and pregnancy."

Davidson told Task & Purpose she delivered it to an assistant manager, who then scheduled the air duct cleaning. But the day before it was supposed to happen, the same manager who did a walk-through canceled it, telling Davidson in an email that Patrician "is not responsible for remedying personal health issues of any resident" and "has made multiple inspections of your unit and deemed the unit safe for occupancy."

Months later, Patrician offered to split the cost of the cleaning, despite still claiming it to be unnecessary.

In a 2016 email to other Navy officials -- which was later sent to Davidson -- Thomas McKelvey, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southeast (NAVFAC SE)'s business agreements manager, said that Patrician would require the Davidsons to stay quiet about their housing problems to neighbors and beyond, in exchange for assistance paying for the air duct cleaning.

All parties would sign an agreement stating that Patrician would not "be held responsible for any adverse conditions ... and they [sic] won't be any mention of the duct cleaning on social media or discussions with other residents," read the email.

The Davidsons ultimately declined the offer, paying just over $1,550 for an air duct cleaning themselves, according to an invoice provided to Task & Purpose.

When asked by Task & Purpose about its involvement in the housing company-tenant settlement process and if it suggests NDAs, the Navy's initial responses were inconsistent.

McKelvey, of NAVFAC SE, told Task & Purpose in an email that the Navy suggested the agreement to Patrician when trying to settle the Davidson case. But that same day, Steve Clutter, a spokesman for Commander, Navy Installations Command (CNIC), told Task & Purpose in an email that "NDAs are not something that the Navy encourages or suggests the partners to do."

Andrew Thomas, a spokesman for Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, originally told Task & Purpose when asked for comment about the Davidsons' case that "[a]s the Navy has made no offer of a non-disclosure agreement, it wouldn't be appropriate to speak to that topic." Three days later, he corrected himself, saying he had "since found that there very well may have been an offer of an NDA from the Navy."

* * * * *

In August 2017, about a month after the Davidsons paid to have the mold removed, they were served a notice of non-renewal of their lease by Patrician. Davidson claims she was evicted, and her lawyer, Mike Cardoza -- a consumer financial protection attorney working on other similar military housing cases -- agrees. He told Task & Purpose the notice of non-renewal was retaliatory.

"They're going to say prove it," Cardoza said. "And I'm going to say, 'Yes, let's do that, let's let 12 people decide if you retaliated against her.'"

Cardoza is currently investigating the Davidsons' case, but has not yet filed a lawsuit.

Scott Forrest, assistant commander for Asset Management of NAVFAC, told Task & Purpose that while the Navy "continues to improve" on its oversight and monitoring of the privatized housing companies, it will advocate "the maximum extent allowed by the Government's business arrangement" with the housing providers.

But from partially redacted emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made by Davidson that were provided to Task & Purpose, it appears the Navy has little jurisdiction over what housing providers actually do.

In more than one instance, various Navy offices involved in Davidson's situation said they advised Patrician to conduct the air duct cleaning, but the company resisted their recommendations.

In a March 2017 email, officials with Command Navy Region Southeast (CNRSE) and NAVFAC "recommended to Patrician to 'clean the ducts,' but Patrician [was] reluctant to do so."

The next day, a CNIC official said cleaning the air ducts "is not an unreasonable request."

The same email said that the Navy Marine Corps Public Health Center "advised Patrician that a certified mold inspector (not a Patrician employee) should revisit the duct issue and perform an inspection. Patrician was not receptive."

Despite these repeatedly ignored recommendations, one CNRSE official painted Mrs. Davidson as unreasonable in August 2017, writing, "I doubt she will ever be satisfied. She seems to look for new people to complain to about the same issue."

When asked about this remark, Forrest told Task & Purpose that comment was "really not appropriate."

A CNIC official also said in March 2017 that because the Davidsons didn't "accept offers for another house, they must not feel there is a great danger to health and safety at the current unit." Yet the day before, a CNRSE official acknowledged in an email to CNIC that the Davidsons didn't want to move because it would be logistically difficult.

The Davidsons "revealed that their 3-year old son was recently diagnosed with Autism," the email reads. "The [Davidsons] also have a newborn and Mr. [Davidson] ... stated that, given his schedule and the age of the children, it would be too difficult for them to move and all they want is the ducts cleaned."

Financial help to move was also essentially out of the question.

Forrest said that the Davidsons "did not meet the requirements of the Navy's policy on intra-station moves ... thus a decision to financially assist with a move would have been" up to Patrician. Forrest also told Task & Purpose that the decision to serve the Davidsons a notice of non-renewal was made by Patrician, despite a CNIC email asserting that this should "be a last resort."

When asked whether the Navy could confidently say that the Davidsons' lease non-renewal was actually a last resort, Forrest referred back to a previous answer that said the Navy "attempted to fulfill" its obligations to the Davidsons, and that the final decision was made by Patrician.

* * * * *

The military's issues with privatized housing companies are no secret -- they've been the topic of congressional hearings for months, following a bombshell Reuters investigation at the end of 2018 found families living with lead poisoning, mold- and mice-ridden homes, dilapidated construction, and other issues some have described as "horrors."

When asked whether service members and their families are asked to sign NDAs for housing issues, officials with the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps confirmed they have been used in some circumstances.

The Coast Guard did not respond by the time of publication.

Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Joseph Butterfield referred Task & Purpose to NAVFAC, as the Navy oversees all Marine Corps housing business agreements. But he added that NDAs between tenants and the housing providers "sometimes take place" -- though the Marine Corps is not involved unless the tenant asks it to be -- and that the housing office can help review the NDA proposals if the tenant requests it.

Mark Kinkade, Air Force Installation and Mission Support spokesman, told Task & Purpose that the Air Force found that three of its 10 housing providers "had used non-disclosure agreements under certain conditions. The Air Force has since sent a memorandum to all 10 project owners requesting them to stop using these agreements with military residents."

Army spokeswoman Heather Hagan told Task & Purpose that soldiers are not required to sign NDAs when moving into private military housing. "In some cases, however," Hagan said, "non-disclosure agreements have been used as part of the settlement of a dispute between a soldier and a privatized housing company."

NAVFAC's Scott Forrest told Task & Purpose in a statement that the Navy "does not condone the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDA) for standard maintenance actions," but has "not taken an official position on the propriety of the LLC Managing Member's use of Non-Disclosure Agreement" in the event of a settlement in a landlord-tenant dispute, though the service did suggest on at least one occasion -- Patrician, in the Davidson's case -- that it include a confidentiality agreement in a settlement with a resident.

Task & Purpose has also obtained a copy of an NDA agreement that was offered to a resident by Lincoln Military Housing at Camp Pendleton, California, in exchange for the company wiping clean the debt Lincoln said the family owed for "damages to the home." It's unclear the extent, if any, of the Navy's involvement in this case.

Cardoza, the Davidson's lawyer, told Task & Purpose that the use of NDAs at all is a big deal, and asking tenants to sign one is "attempting to silence the issue and keep others from coming forward."

"Through this systemic asymmetry of power, the housing companies have kept the military away from the housing issues," he said. "And they've kept the victims down by saying, 'Hey look, either you shut up and get with the program, or you're going to owe a lot of money.'"

* * * * *

During the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in March, Tillis demanded the NDAs be rescinded by the following month.

"If they're not rescinded," the senator said, "I want to know what housing company wants to come before me and tell me why it makes sense." (Tillis' office would not clarify whether his demand applied to all NDAs.)

But Janna Driver, a former Air Force spouse and spokeswoman for military family advocacy group Military Matters, told Task & Purpose that she's not sure Congress -- or the Pentagon, for that matter -- has much control over what the companies do.

"It sounds good, but the DoD doesn't have the authority to retract those. Those are between the housing companies and the families," Driver said. "If they even tried to retract them, the response would be 'You can't make us.' They don't have to do anything."

At the end of the day, Davidson said she just wants answers: answers for the health and behavioral specialists her son now has to see, with hopes that they can better understand how to treat his symptoms; answers to validate her concerns; and answers to ensure that other families won't have to go through what hers has.

"I want testing done on the house we moved from. ... This is something I have been asking for and would be helpful for our son's many specialists to know what he had been exposed to in that house," Davidson told Task & Purpose. "I have the utmost respect for the Marine Corps, and want to thank them for their continued support. ... I want this company investigated for fraud, and the 50-year contract they have revoked. I don't want this to happen to anyone else. Ever."

-- This article originally appeared at Task & Purpose. Follow Task & Purpose on Twitter.

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