Military families continue to face issues with unhealthy living conditions at privatized housing, as well as unresponsive landlords and military officials, despite the Pentagon implementing a tenant bill of rights last year, families testified to Congress on Thursday.
“Each citizen puts their faith in us to protect the standards of this country,” Army Private First Class Cody Calderon said at a hearing held by the House Appropriations Committee’s military construction subcommittee. “What happens when the standards, the foundation that supports those protectors, is built on these mold and sewage and lead and pest issues?”
Calderon was speaking to the committee virtually from an Airbnb that he and his wife, Alyssa, are paying for entirely out of pocket while they wait for their home 30 minutes away at Fort Polk, Louisiana, to be cleared of mold that sickened them and their dog, Leo.
Systemic issues with on-base military housing run by private companies, including widespread mold, rodent infestations, dangerous wiring and shoddy repairs, came to light after a series of Reuters articles in 2018, followed by several congressional hearings where military families testified about the poor housing conditions.
Somes companies have also faced legal woes, with Balfour Beatty Communities LLC pleading guilty in December to defrauding the Army, Air Force and Navy and agreeing to paying $65 million in fines and restitution. In January, Hunt Companies agreed to settle its fraud case at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for $500,000 without admitting fault.
In response to the unsafe living conditions, Congress mandated that the Defense Department issue an 18-point tenant bill of rights aimed at providing military families with more negotiating power with the private companies that run the military housing and ensuring more oversight from the military services.
The bill of rights has been implemented at all but five of nearly 200 military bases with privatized housing, Pentagon officials testified Thursday. The private companies must agree to the bill of rights before it can be put into effect.
In his testimony, Calderon said he moved into a home at Fort Polk managed by housing company Corvias last summer, 11 days after the bill of rights was implemented. His wife immediately felt something was wrong with the home, but initially brushed it off as the shock of moving or environmental allergens, he said.
A Corvias representative insisted the company is listening to the concerns of its residents, with the representative offering to visit Fort Polk and speak directly with Calderon.
“We believe every resident is important, and while we are hardly perfect, our people on the ground try hard to earn the trust of our residents,” said Al Aycock, Corvias’ military partnership executive.
Since realizing the issue was actually mold, Calderon and his wife have faced rude and unprofessional maintenance workers; were told their home was safe to move back into, only to find mold was still there; and received no response from the military housing office on questions, such as a timeline for remediation.
While Calderon said he could not make comparisons to before the bill of rights was in place since he’s only been in the housing for a year, he said there appears to be “no urgency” in fixing his situation, that he feels he has no place to turn to for help and that the military housing office “failed” him.
“I don’t think I could do 20 years of this,” Calderon said when asked if the housing issues are affecting his future in the military. “I don’t think I could put my wife through 20 years of this just for a retirement.”
Testifying alongside Calderon, Nikki Wylie, the wife of a Marine master sergeant, detailed the issues her family has faced since 2018 at their Liberty Military Housing-managed home in the Shadow Mountain community at Twentynine Palms, California, including her previously healthy children developing breathing problems and skin rashes shortly after moving into the home.
Maintenance workers also repeatedly told her there was no mold or simply caulked over the mold, and in one instance, a maintenance worker insisted there was no gas leak, only for the base fire department to later confirm there was and that it could have had “lethal ramifications,” Wylie said.
“The government housing office has been of very little assistance, unfortunately, with navigating this,” Wylie said. “We had nowhere to go. We felt very alone against the giant that is the housing company and their complicit contractors.”
Philip Rizzo, CEO of Liberty, thanked Wylie for testifying, saying they’ve previously been in touch and that “we've actually made improved changes since then.”
Rachel Christian, co-founder of Armed Forces Housing Advocates, also told the committee housing issues are “absolutely systemic still.” One of the problems is that government housing employees and advocates provided by military housing offices aren’t properly trained in detecting issues, such as mold and gas leaks, and in the state and local laws they are tasked with making sure are enforced, Christian said.
The testimony deeply frustrated lawmakers.
“I feel like I’m stuck in 2019,” subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said. “My patience has run out, and I know the committee’s has as well.”
The Pentagon on Thursday conceded that there have been “hiccups” in implementing the bill of rights, but contended the situation is improving.
“There has been a significant increase in training. Obviously some staff are new and they’re still being trained, and there are probably locations, as was mentioned, where maybe the on-base housing staff don’t understand fully that the state and local requirements do apply to privatized housing,” said Patricia Coury, deputy assistant secretary of defense for housing.
“The tenant bill of rights has been in place since August,” she added. “We know there are places that there have been hiccups along the way as the housing offices are learning how to follow the new policies and processes, and we are committed to working through that and making this program the best that it can be.”
Lawmakers were unmollified by the assurances of progress.
“It certainly doesn’t seem like anywhere near enough progress has been made,” Wasserman Schultz told Coury. “And I’m not sure that the structure you’ve put in place is working or enough.”
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.