As House lawmakers pressed housing company officials about persistent reports of mold, vermin infestations, water leaks and lack of response to military families, a number of military spouses sat behind the officials, sporting red shirts emblazoned with “#NotTheSlumlords.”
The hashtag has caught on two days after Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., made a comparison between privatized housing companies and slumlords during a Tuesday Senate hearing where service officials testified. The term was also used in a lawsuit filed in Tampa Monday to describe the privatized housing landlord at MacDill Air Force Base.
McSally had made a reference to housing offices where military families couldn’t distinguish between government and private company employees, and who had their best interests. She suggested that the employees may need shirts to identify themselves for the benefit of military families, perhaps with the word “slumlord.”
“So we started making sure to identify we were not the slumlord,” said Ashley Fischer, a Navy wife and housing advocate for families who have been displaced from their homes at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
Like senators said Tuesday, House lawmakers said they’re still getting reports that some companies are not taking military families’ concerns seriously about hazards in their houses, and showing a lack of respect for military families —10 months after military spouses first testified about the persistent problems they’re having with their privatized housing landlords.
“We’ve got to stop putting Band-Aids on gaping wounds,” said Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., during a Thursday hearing of the readiness panel of the House Armed Services Committee. She noted the issues of infestations that have continued to plague Tinker Air Force Base.
Displaying a picture of mold in one of the houses, Horn asked Balfour Beatty’s representative if it’s a place he’d want to live. Richard Taylor, president of facility operations, renovations and construction for Balfour Beatty Communities acknowledged it was “absolutely unacceptable.”
Horn questioned whether Balfour Beatty will commit to making the investment necessary for a long-term solution to the problem, even if it means tearing down some houses and rebuilding them, in order to do right by military families. “That rests on my shoulders and I will be held accountable,” Taylor said.
Military officials and company officials have taken responsibility for the problems, and have been taking steps to improve housing for families.
But Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., said he’s concerned about what it took to bring the problems to light in the first place. “What concerns me is it took the courage of military spouses to come to Congress. The Pentagon didn’t come to Congress and say, ‘We have a problem.’ You didn’t come to Congress and say, ‘We have a problem,'” he told the executives. “Instead, military families got squeezed. It was military spouses who stepped up. That’s a shame on you, and a shame on the Pentagon.”
Officials from Corvias Group, Hunt Companies, Lendlease Americas and Lincoln Military Housing also testified, detailing various actions they are taking to address the problems, such as a variety of ways to open lines of communications with families, including town halls, hotlines, and advocates for families, and apps that families can use to report maintenance issues. They’ve added more staff and more training for maintenance, and strengthened and tightened up procedures. Dennis Hickey, CEO of Lendlease, said they’re establishing resident advisory boards in their communities, with the goal of one representative for every 100 homes.
Jarl Bliss, president of Lincoln Military Housing, said employees are actively knocking on residents’ doors to find out if there are any needs, even when there are no work orders, in an effort to improve communication and trust.
Taylor said Balfour Beatty is taking allegations of fraud seriously, and is cooperating with Department of Justice officials, as well as investing in outside counsel to look into the matter of whether maintenance records were doctored so the company could receive incentive fees from the government. They will return those incentive fees and take disciplinary action against anyone in the company if improper actions are found, he said.
In general, Balfour Beatty has terminated 17 employees since the beginning of this year because they weren’t following company policies and procedures, Taylor said, including some housing managers.
The company officials each acknowledged that while they’ve made progress, there’s more work to do. Asked what responsibilities the companies have to make sure families are taken care of in cases where children are affected medically, the company officials said they work with the families to determine the best solution. John Picerne, CEO of Corvias and Lendlease’s Hickey said they would provide financial compensation.
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., asked about policies for mold testing, as many families want to have licensed, independent mold experts conduct testing in their homes, but some companies don’t accept the results, or don’t allow the testing.
John Ehle, president of Hunt Military Communities, said the company follows guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency, which generally advises against the testing, finding it to be inconclusive. He cited examples where mold was found in areas where there was none, and tests where no mold was found, even though there was obvious mold all over the walls.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., chairman of the subcommittee, put the companies on notice that the lawmakers are not going to let this issue go, and that further hearings will be held. “I also want to make one thing clear: While we do not have all of the private military housing partners present today, that in no way means that those not present are off the hook. Our oversight will continue, and we’re watching you, too.”
Following the hearing, Ashley Fischer said some of the same things are being said about improvements to fix the problems, but it will be nice to see results.
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.