The head of a company named in a lawsuit charging mold infestation and other substandard conditions in on-base housing at Fort Meade, Maryland, last week acknowledged a history of neglect by private firms and the Defense Department in managing military housing and pledged $325 million for fixups.
Management overall "went sideways" in a series of poor decisions and inaction on budgeting and oversight, John Picerne, founder and chief executive officer of the Rhode Island-based Corvias Group, said in an interview with Military.com before the Fort Meade lawsuit was filed.
The neglect dated back to the failed implementation of a 1996 plan called the Military House Privatization Initiative (MHPI), said Picerne, whose firm manages 26,000 homes at 13 Army and Air Force installations, including Fort Meade.
Related: Mold in Fort Meade Military Housing Prompts 10 Families to File Lawsuit
"It was not a bad program" as conceived, Picerne said of the initiative to privatize military homes, but the plan has proved to be "not the program that was needed at this point in time."
Recent surveys of military housing residents have described mold, pest infestation, utilities issues and poor construction.
Picerne owns that conditions were neglected.
"We all just let it alone for too long," he said.
Picerne said Corvias was assembling the $325 million from investors to improve and renovate existing military housing it managed.
The 10 military families who are plaintiffs in the suit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Maryland alleged that Corvias' failure to address maintenance requests resulted in mold and other substandard conditions that caused them economic harm and made them sick.
The suit was similar to one filed last month in Texas against the Hunt Military Communities firm by eight military families over water leaks, mold and pests in housing at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio.
In the Fort Meade case, a Corvias spokeswoman said in a statement that the firm contested the "allegations that have been made by the plaintiffs and will vigorously defend this lawsuit."
"We are committed to the safe housing needs of military service members and their families, and will continue to provide dedicated service to our residents," the statement said.
A nationwide survey of military families earlier this year by the Military Family Advisory Network showed that 68% of the family respondents from Fort Meade cited poor maintenance, 48% had issues with mold, 34% had structural concerns, 32% cited plumbing and 31% complained of general "filth in homes."
Shannon Razsadin, executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, declined comment on the merits of the Fort Meade lawsuit but said that the military "had put trust in the companies" to address housing conditions.
She also said the survey showed that military families ranked Corvias among the poorest-performing of the private property management companies serving military bases.
In February testimony to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel and Readiness, Picerne stood out from other property management executives by offering an apology for how issues with military housing were allowed to accumulate.
"We let down some of our residents," Picerne said. "I'm sorry and we are going to fix it. We will get to the bottom of this problem and return to the gold standard.."
Picerne said at the hearing the bases that will benefit from renovations funded by the millions Corvias plans to raise include Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which has been singled out by Defense Secretary Mark Esper as one of the worst in the Army for military housing.
In March, following a visit to Fort Bragg and meetings with military families, Esper, who was Army Secretary at the time, termed housing conditions at the post "unconscionable."
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, who accompanied Esper to Bragg, said blame for the housing conditions had to be shared.
"I am not going to place blame on any one link in the chain; the housing providers are at fault, the command is at fault, the [Defense] Department is at fault, and Congress is at fault for taking their eye off this ball," he said.
In the interview with Military.com, Picerne acknowledged poor conditions at Fort Bragg but said Corvias also "inherited homes" at nearby Pope Army Airfield.
"They were really in tough shape," he said of the homes at Pope, but the "worst of the worst were spread across the entire [Corvias] portfolio."
According to Corvias, the $325 million would be aimed at renovations at Fort Bragg, Fort Meade, Fort Riley in Kansas, Fort Rucker in Alabama, Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Fort Polk in Louisiana and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
"We will build new and renovate 750 homes for military families over the next three years with an additional 245 new homes coming soon as part of the Out Year Development plans for Forts Bragg and Meade," Corvias said in a statement.
The plan calls for the demolition over the next five years of 140 homes at Aberdeen Proving Grounds and 160 homes at Fort Bragg.
According to Corvias, the firm has delivered more than 9,500 new homes and renovated more than 16,400 since beginning work with the Army in 2000.
"At Fort Meade, we have some homes that cannot be upgraded and we've decided we're just going to build new," Picerne said.
While defending Corvias' overall performance, Picerne said that the ability of his and other firms to meet obligations under the MHPI plan was hampered by events out of their control, beginning with the 9/11 attacks that led to tightened security at all installations.
MHPI went into place in the 1996 National Defense Authorization Act, which called for a "public/private program whereby private sector developers may own, operate, maintain, improve and assume responsibility for military family housing, where doing so is economically advantageous and national security is not adversely affected."
"The focus was on building brand new homes on existing infrastructure," but the poor condition of the existing infrastructure hadn't been taken into account, as well as aging inventory of homes, Picerne said.
After 9/11, just getting the equipment to renovate onto bases became problematic, and "it all goes sideways when the markets shift," Picerne said.
The contractors were accustomed to easy access to bases, but after 9/11 "that all changed," he said. Access became highly restrictive "so costs went up in some cases by 100%," he said.
"At Fort Meade, we had to develop our own construction gate access point, just purely to get construction materials onto the installation," he said.
At Fort Meade and other bases, "We had concrete trucks at one point in time that were binding up while they were sitting in a massive line waiting to get onto the installation," he said. "We had cost inflation in a minute after 9/11. We had to get highly creative in how we did things."
Then came the budget problems brought on by the sequestration process limiting military spending, Picerne said, and "we became misaligned" with the overall purpose of MHPI.
The lesson learned was that 'these things are going to go backwards if we're not careful," Picerne said, "and this is where we have to take ownership of this."
The private firms "shifted our focus away from the portfolio and started to focus on other endeavors."
As did the government, he said.
"So between the government focusing on other endeavors, and Corvias in our case focusing on other endeavors," the problems accumulated, he said. "If you're not going forward, you're inevitably going backwards."
The government had forgotten "they were holding their oar on their side of the boat, and we had forgotten we were holding our oar on our side of the boat, and we have to be rowing in unison for this thing to work," Picerne said.
The task ahead in building energy-efficient homes and getting ahead of the maintenance backlog was daunting, Picerne said, but "this can be done with really sound and innovative investments."
The goal, he said, was to insure that American service members got the kind of on-base housing they deserved.
“We have to stay on this," he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
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