Air Force Lt. Col. Derek Bright’s children were out of their home for so long at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, that Fairfax County school officials considered them homeless, and qualified them for the free lunch program. They were displaced for 87 days while their home was treated for mold.
Ashley Fischer and her Navy chief husband lived in a hotel off post near Fort Belvoir, then in a temporary house, after mold was found in their home — and while their 3-year-old son has been undergoing treatment for brain cancer.
Raven Roman and her family are living in their third home in a year — and it’s not because of military change of station moves. They’ve been displaced from their home at Fort Belvoir twice because of mold and other problems that have affected their family’s health.
“We decided to move off post. We couldn’t continue to put our children at risk,” Roman said. The move off post cost them $8,000 out of pocket, all told, she said.
“We’re going through the second round of throwing our personal belongings away,” because of mold contamination.
As the problems with mold and other health and safety issues have come to light in some military privatized housing, officials in the services and in privatized housing companies have vowed publicly to address the problems quickly.
In some cases, that means a family has to leave the home while the company remediates the problem, which might take a week, or even months. At some installations, it also meant fewer homes available for incoming families, causing delays for move-ins and difficulty finding hotel rooms.
The problems at Belvoir are a microcosm of similar issues across the country, affecting members of all the military branches.
No one — least of all the families themselves — wants anyone to stay in a house that isn’t safe. But some families have found new levels of frustration in leaving their homes. There’s inconsistency in how the families are treated in this displacement process, from base to base, company to company, and even sometimes on the same installation, according to families and advocates.
“All we’re asking for is standard operating procedures, transparency and accountability,” said Roman, wife of an Army chief warrant officer. Families also need information about navigating this complex, difficult process, and they need open lines of communication, she said.
Fischer believes the situation speaks to the need for more oversight by the military. “For every branch of service, the military needs to come back to oversight. They need to demand policies in writing from every [privatized housing company], to include what they are going to do for displacement,” she said. “It may be best to have the same across the board.”
There needs to be “clear directives and polices that are followed for displacement, to include [Basic Allowance for Housing] rent reimbursement, food cards, and remediation or replacement of household items,” said Crystal Cornwall, executive director of the Safe Military Housing Initiative.
“Displacement in and of itself is a huge inconvenience to families financially and within their everyday lives,” said Cornwall. “They have to figure out bus routes, how to get their kids to and from school, how to pay for the expense of eating out, gas....”
“Normally, military families move every two to three years. Your house is your safe haven, where you put down shallow roots,” said Fischer, the Navy spouse. “It’s not your safe place any more. For a lot of us, we’ve had to move during that two year period.”
On top of everything else, sometimes spouses are having to deal with being displaced while the service member is away for military duty.
Bright said he’s seen differences in how his and other families are treated at Fort Belvoir compared with his previous base where he was also displaced because of mold: Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. There, the housing company, Hunt, was better about communicating with residents, he said, and more honest about disclosing and addressing problems in the home. “It’s not right, and it’s not getting better. It’s getting more confrontational,” Bright said.
There are inconsistencies in how fast companies make decisions about remediation and whether families should leave the houses; what kinds of living expenses are paid, and whether families have to continue to pay rent when they’re out of a base house, said Darlena Brown, an Army wife who is founder and president of the Military Housing Advocacy Network. Some families have been displaced for 130 days, she said. Sometimes the only hotels available are off base 30 minutes or more away. And there are inconsistencies in whether families are reimbursed for any of their belongings that are ruined because of mold; how companies determine whether the house is safe for their return; and other issues.
Brown said she’d like to see the service branches adopt a system similar to the family readiness groups, with true advocates working on behalf of military families to deal with housing issues,
There is also sometimes a disconnect between families and the local privatized housing management, said some families and advocates. But at the corporate level, some of the companies have been quick to engage when problems are brought to them.
Army and Navy track the numbers of displaced families
Army Col. Michael Greenberg, garrison commander at Fort Belvoir, said there’s no standard operating procedure in writing for displaced families, “but the Army took a hard stance. The life, health and safety of our families is of No. 1 importance. The guidance has been, if you feel unsafe in your house, we will get you to a hotel or hospitality suite immediately.”
Since February, the Army and Navy have tracked the number of families who have been displaced because of mold or other health and safety issues.
- Army: 1,772 families have been moved to temporary quarters, said Scott Malcom, spokesman for Army Installation Management Command. Currently, there are 178 residents of privatized housing and two residents of government-owned housing in temporary quarters, he said. “Soldiers and their families return to their primary residence between seven and 30 days,” he said.
- Navy: 358 displacements of families in privatized homes, and 47 permanent relocations, for a variety of reasons, including health and safety issues, according to Cmdr. Pamela Rawe, spokesman for Navy Installations Command. “Each situation is unique, but dislocations typically range from a few days to a couple of weeks,” she said.
- Air Force and Marine Corps officials didn’t provide numbers of families who have been displaced. Each noted that that the temporary relocations are managed at the local level.
Army four-star: ‘Unacceptable’
Military leaders are also aware of the inconsistencies in policies designed to help families who must vacate mold-infested homes.
“We’re working to be collaborative in the services, because we’d like it to be the same across the board,” said Gen. Gus Perna, commanding general of the Army Materiel Command, noting that service members often live on an installation belonging to a different service branch, and everyone needs to clearly understand their rights. Perna has been given the mission of setting Army housing back on the right track.
With that said, he noted, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville “have said we are going to standardize that within the Army. We want to do it together, but we’re working it,” Perna said.
“We recognize this is a diverse approach, and we want to get that fixed,” Perna said.
The Army is tracking every displaced family, how long they’ve been displaced, and when they move back in, he said. But that’s just the first step. Next, Perna said, is “the accountability .... that they never should have been displaced to begin with; the standardizing of what we give them so they know their rights; and getting them back into their homes.”
Perna said he’s made it clear to privatized housing company CEOs that having the problems resulting in displaced families is unacceptable. He’s told them, he said, that he appreciates what they’re doing in providing some benefits for displaced families, but "that’s mildly interesting to me.
“When you can’t sit down, when you can’t sleep in your bed, when the lights aren’t the way you want them, when your children’s closets are their suitcase, it’s unacceptable. Unacceptable. So I appreciate you’re paying for this, and you’re doing that, but it’s unacceptable to the end-state we’re trying to achieve.”
The newly formed Military Housing Association, a coalition of five of the most active companies in the military housing public private partnerships, declined to comment on whether the companies are working together to look at the procedures for helping military families who are displaced.
Because these lengthy displacements for health and safety reasons are relatively new, policies are evolving.
“This is a relatively new area, as it was not common to have to displace residents over the past 12 years,” said Ron Hansen, president of Michaels Management Services, the property manager at Fort Belvoir, among other bases. “We started at paying for hotels if a resident had to be displaced. Our assumption was displacement would be around a week.”
But as the numbers of displaced families and time of displacement have increased, he said, Michaels and Clark Realty have been developing policies, which are not yet formalized.
Who pays for what?
Generally the companies are making arrangements for families to live elsewhere, and are paying for a hotel or other living arrangements.
But that’s where the similarities seem to end, according to families, advocates, service officials and some company officials interviewed. In some cases the company no longer requires the family to pay rent — equivalent to the service member’s Basic Allowance for Housing. Sometimes the company charges prorated rent.
Yet, that’s not always the case, and it’s not even the expectation of the services. Army, Air Force and Navy officials said that when the privatized housing company is providing temporary accommodations, the resident is still responsible for paying rent to the company — the amount of their BAH. Information was not available from the Marine Corps.
“Often times, the project owners will also provide some rent concession to the resident to offset the inconvenience,” said Air Force spokeswoman Laura McAndrews.
It may vary within the company, too. “Reimbursing BAH as a result of displacement is managed on a case-by-case basis, depending on multiple variables,” said Alisa Capaldi, spokeswoman for Corvias, which manages 26,000 homes across 13 installations.
Lincoln Military Housing, which owns 36,000 units of military housing across the country, says reimbursement for food and other expenses tied to displacements is based on a variety of factors, including whether the temporary residence has kitchen facilities.
When the McClain family had to leave their mold-infested residence at one of Lincoln’s privatized housing communities near Virginia’s Oceana Naval Air Station because of mold, the company kept their BAH, but paid for their hotel stay and cut a check for other expenses, said Navy wife Rachel McClain. “We gave proof of all our expenses, but it wasn’t the full amount we spent,” she added.
McClain said her family was forced to take out a loan to move to a private rental in town. She said her family reached an agreement with Lincoln to cover some costs, but she declined to provide details.
Sgt. 1st Class Shannon Elliott said the Fort Hood Family Housing company hasn’t required rent payments since his family was displaced in February — stopping the BAH allotment. In addition. the company paid the family’s hotel bill. That housing is owned by Lendlease, Inc., and managed by WinnCompanies.
The standard at Fort Belvoir Residential Communities is that displaced families don’t have to pay for their hotel or other temporary quarters; their BAH is reimbursed to them, except for the first seven days of displacement; and they receive a gift card for $200 after the first day of displacement, said Greenberg. Before the family returns to the home, the company’s quality control team looks at the house to make sure it’s acceptable, he said, and a quality assurance team from Fort Belvoir checks the house.
Some companies at some bases pay per diem expenses or provide some reimbursement; others don’t. Some companies have paid for moves off the installation, others don’t. Sometimes there are differences in what a manager of one housing community offers families compared with another manager of another community on the same base.
In a hotel, even with a small kitchenette, it’s often difficult to cook for the family, so expenses like eating out and extra gas add up, said Fischer, especially for those who have been in a hotel for more than 100 days.
On Oct. 11, a local church donated more than 30 convection ovens to displaced families at Fort Belvoir. “You don’t realize how baking cookies matters until you’ve been in the hotel for 100 days and you haven’t baked cookies for 100 days,” Fischer said.
“You wouldn’t think about this day-to-day hardship a lot of families aren’t prepared for," she said. "They don’t have the savings to spend on these extras.”
Once school started this fall at Fort Belvoir, the Bright family had to borrow school clothes from neighbors and friends, because their belongings were locked in their home, under remediation. “We couldn’t get to our clothes. We can’t go and spend hundreds of dollars on clothes we already have,” Bright said.
They moved their five children and chocolate Labrador retriever into two hotel rooms on July 17, a week after their fifth child was born. The other children are 9, 7, 5 and 3. They were later moved into a townhouse temporarily, but had to leave that house because of mold problems, too.
But Bright is concerned about other families. Most of those displaced at Fort Belvoir are in the ranks of E6 and below, he said.
“It’s absolutely the lower ranking enlisted families who are suffering the most,” said Darlena Brown, president of the Military Housing Advocacy Network. “And they don’t have a voice.”
Fort Hood Family Housing has also reimbursed Elliott for some expenses for food for his family of seven, and the company is in the process of setting up a standard procedure for per diem payments for displaced families, he said. Elliott and his wife, Maureen, have five children and have lived in three different houses on base. They’ve been displaced since February; and on Oct. 8 moved back into their third home after it was treated for mold.
Fort Hood Family Housing, a subsidiary of Lendlease, Inc., has published a protocol that uses a formula consistent with Joint Travel Regulations per diem rates for reimbursement of expenses when a family is displaced from their home, according to Fort Hood spokesman Tom Rheinlander.
Unless there’s language in a tenant’s lease agreement that addresses this specifically, a resident may seek reimbursement for housing-related expenses by filing a claim with their renters insurance company or by filing suit in any court that has jurisdiction to hear their claim, according to Scott Malcom, spokesman for the Army Installation Management Command.
Insurance companies providing renter’s coverage do not cover damage due to mold, as families have found.
According to the Navy Installations Command, each family and situation is unique, when determining what expenses will be reimbursed, so the compensation provided by the privatized housing property manager is evaluated and determined individually by the company. Navy housing personnel are advocates to help residents understand their options, the spokeswoman said.
What about damaged household goods?
A big sticking point for some families is whether the company pays anything for replacement of household goods that can’t be salvaged by cleaning, and that have been ruined by the mold.
Until recently, Elliott had been at an impasse with Fort Hood Family Housing regarding their household goods, which remain in the second of three houses they lived in at the base. Because of Maureen Elliott’s medical condition and her multiple auto-immune disorders, extreme care must be taken in cleaning the mold from their household goods.
“They can’t use certain chemicals to clean my items,” she said. Some of the items will be unsalvageable, and will have to be replaced. There have been disagreements about whether the company will pay replacement costs.
Those belongings sitting in that house represent 20 years of memories with his family, Elliott said.
The company has now told them they will assess what can be safely cleaned based on her medical condition, and pay the full cost for replacing unsalvageable items with a like product, Elliott said.
Lendlease officials declined to comment on its policies, saying in a statement, “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on the private lives of our residents."
Rheinlander, the Fort Hood spokesman, said the private company hires a third party consultant to assess and reimburse damaged household goods.
Corvias works with residents to ensure belongings are properly cleaned or replaced if necessary, said Capaldi.
When a resident claims that property must be disposed of because of mold, Michaels Management Services offers to specifically test and clean the items, said Hansen. If the resident believes cleaning is not acceptable and wants full reimbursement, the company looks at dispute resolution. The local manager has the authority to resolve reimbursement on obvious items and reasonable requests, he said.
In general, the Army policy is that the resident should raise the matter with the landlord, and if necessary, file a claim with the landlord to seek reimbursement, Malcom said. As a final resort, resort, can file a claim with the installation claims office.
According to the Navy Installations Command, each situation is unique, and damages will be assessed and compensation will be provided by the company as evaluated in each individual case.
Is it safe to return to the house?
When the remediation is done, there are questions about how effective it is, and whether it’s safe for the family to return.
“It’s everybody’s question. What is considered safe? What do they do to make sure the family is safe coming back into the home?” said Roman.
The Romans had extensive mold in their first home at Fort Belvoir, and the company moved them to another home in 2018, and paid for the move. Her husband was away on temporary duty at the time. About five months later, they found mold in the second home. They were moved to a hotel for 10 days, then back into the house. “We got a clearance report saying the home was good to go. But the main issue, the elevated humidity, was not addressed,” she said.
“We felt we couldn’t do it any more. We didn’t feel we could put our children in another home on base,” she said. Two of their three girls had had pneumonia at the same time, and both had been getting consistently sick, with chronic upper-respiratory conditions.
So their third house in a year’s time was a house in the civilian community — a move that cost them about $8,000 out of pocket.
Brown and Cornwall, the military housing advocates, said there have been a number of families who have been displaced multiple times because of mold in homes. Some families have felt the need to pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket for mold testing.
Michaels Management Services uses a number of tests at Fort Belvoir, depending on the issues, said Hansen, the company president. “We are testing to ensure the problem was taken care of. We use moisture meters and thermal imagery to ensure possible water sources have been identified and have been extinguished. We can use swab tests to specifically test and area and see if the mold issue has been resolved.”
He said there are sometimes issues with residents’ expectations about whether the work that’s done is appropriate.
“There are protocols to follow in many of the actions involving environmental issues. Trained professionals should act appropriately," Hansen said. "Our staff inspects the work of our contractors and corrects them if something is done incorrectly. Likewise if someone has a question or issue, they need to raise it to the community manager.”
Greenberg, the garrison commander at Belvoir, said it’s his stance that the family shouldn’t go back into their home until everything is fixed. His command team reaches out to displaced families periodically to make sure they’re getting what they need, and that they are getting the right information from the company about the status of their home. The command team reviews the status of displaced families each day with the company, he said.
“I don’t have the authority to direct the housing company to do anything. I can only recommend. But I’ve recommended on multiple occasions that if the family feels unsafe, then they should go to a hotel," he said. If there are issues, he communicates those up the chain of command, he said, and gets feedback from Army leaders that the issue is being discussed and addressed with the company.
He’s also asked for more guidance on standards for testing for mold inside the houses, as well as medical testing for people who believe they are sickened by mold.
Fort Hood Family Housing follows state regulations, which include a mold assessment consultant and mold remediation contractor licensed in Texas. After the work is completed by the remediation contractor, the assessment consultant inspects the work, according to Fort Hood’s Rheinlander.
Another privatized housing company, Corvias, hires qualified professionals to respond to residents’ environmental concerns and they conduct post-remediation evaluation, according to their spokeswoman. “Typically, this work is verified by both Corvias’ maintenance team and our Army and Air Force partners at each installation,” said Capaldi.
How one command helps its soldiers and families
At Fort Belvoir, Fischer said advocates have been “super blessed” with the garrison command team. “They’re doing everything within their power that they can do,” she said, while acknowledging that not every displaced family on every other installation can say that.
Some families reported mixed results in seeking help from their installation commanders, but many said their unit’s chain of command has been supportive.
On a recent September day, SFC Elliott had an appointment with the legal office, an appointment with the exceptional family member program office at Fort Hood, and needed to take three of his five children to a clinic off base for blood work related to their illnesses and the mold in their home. The three children have asthma.
He praised his command for its support and help at every level, from the company first sergeant all the way up to the brigade commander. They gave him the option of temporarily stepping into a job with less responsibility so he could focus on getting issues resolved with his family’s living situation.
So taking care of those family issues meant he wasn’t in the field with his soldiers for training that day.
“The biggest thing that bothers me, is my job is to take care of my soldiers and train my soldiers for combat," said Elliott, who is stationed with HHC Company, 20th Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade. “That’s the reason I joined, and stayed in. My soldiers are in the field training, and I’m here taking care of my family. I’m taking a step back and taking a knee for my family.”
But the command is also much more involved in these housing issues. From the brigade commander down, his command is actively working with all the soldiers in the brigade who are having housing issues, Elliott said. Currently nine soldiers are displaced.
“My battalion command sergeant major has attended all my meetings with housing,” Elliott said. “He does that not just with me. He goes to as many meetings as he can with other soldiers.” Someone from the brigade goes with every soldier to these meetings, he added. The day before Elliott was interviewed, his brigade commander also attended a meeting with Elliott and the housing company.
The brigade commander “is tracking everything going on. He holds weekly meetings with all the soldiers who are displaced,” Elliott said.
Families stepping in for families
At places like Fort Belvoir, Keesler Air Force Base, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Dover Air Force Base, Oceana Naval Air Station, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Fort Hood, some military members and spouses have stepped up as advocates — many of whom are or have been displaced themselves.
Fischer is one of them. Her family’s displacement happened during an already stressful time, as their 3-year-old son was undergoing weekly chemotherapy and other treatment, with two to three trips a week to Children’s National Hospital in Washington. Fischer said they learned in December that their son Rhett had brain cancer. They discovered the mold in June.
Their two older children, ages 12 and 7, ended up staying with her parents the whole summer because of the displacement. “It robbed them of summer time with mom and dad,” she said.
The advocates interviewed said they’re trying to provide information and resources to families to help them make decisions, and to help them in their discussions with housing companies.
“We want to empower the soldier and family to speak up and ask the questions,” said Maureen Elliott, at Fort Hood. She is connected to Cornwall’s advocacy network. “We tell them ahead of time what they may or may not be entitled to based on current policies and procedures,” she said.
Fischer, Roman, and three other military spouses are volunteering as advocates at Fort Belvoir. Fischer is serving as a displaced family liaison, and has meetings with the property management company and base officials at Fort Belvoir each week.
“Ashley [Fischer] has really done a lot of great work trying to bring the problems we’re having here at Belvoir to the forefront,” said Lt. Col. Bright. “She’s been working with the garrison commander and the company. She’s a strong advocate for families who are displaced, who say, ‘Oh my God, what just happened to me? I don’t even know what to ask for or what to expect,' ” he said.
In many cases, Michaels Management Services has been very responsive to residents’ requests, one advocate said.
Roman said they’ve worked with the Fort Belvoir public affairs office to create a housing portal to pull together information in a central location.
Their advocacy group has been holding dinners for displaced families. They’ve arranged for Military Family Life counselors to speak to families at a dinner soon, Roman said. “Military children need support. They’re being moved in and out of their homes. We’re seeing kids being affected by being displaced.”
These moves are disturbing the consistency in their lives, she said.
“We hear kids, say, ‘I can’t be in my home because there’s mold in there," Roman said. “The counselors will come to speak to families about support services available.”
Those responsible need a better understanding of how disruptive these issues have become, Roman said.
“People say things like, ‘Well, they’re paying for your hotel,' but they don’t see how disruptive this is,” Roman said. “It’s definitely affecting families. You don’t understand until you ‘re experiencing it.”
Sgt. 1st Class Shannon Elliott, who, along with his wife, advocates for other soldiers and families at Fort Hood, said it bothers him when people say to him, “Why don’t you just move off post?”
To that, his reply is, “If it wasn’t my family, it would be another family living in that house.”
Senior reporter Courtney Mabeus contributed to this report.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.