Those three key protections for military families that were left out of the tenant bill of rights will be available soon, a defense official told lawmakers Tuesday, and executives of five of the largest privatized housing companies said they agree to those protections.
Three key protections weren’t included in the military housing tenant bill of rights signed by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the service secretaries last week: the right to a maintenance history of the house before a tenant moves in; the right to a dispute resolution process; and the right to have the tenant’s rent withheld from the landlord until a dispute is settled. The document commits to providing 15 rights to military tenants by May 1; and stated DoD is working on providing the other three protections.
Those three additional key protections should be available “pretty quick,” said Pete Potochney, acting assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, although he didn’t have a timeline. He testified Tuesday before the House Appropriation Committee’s panel on military construction, veterans affairs and related agencies.
But lawmakers questioned why the protections weren’t included in the initial document.
“You’re talking about a tenant bill of rights. Why would the landlords’ opinions, desires or wants have anything to do with it?” asked Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa. “DoD has been instructed to include these in the tenant bill of rights” in the fiscal 2020 defense authorization act, he said.
Potochney replied that DoD does intend to provide these rights, and officials are working with the privatized housing companies to develop procedures.
He said Esper felt DoD wasn’t able to provide these three protections unilaterally and immediately because of the individual legal agreements signed years ago, and officials are working out details with the companies.
Pressed by lawmakers during the three-hour hearing, executives representing Corvias, Hunt Military Communities, Lincoln Military Housing, Lendlease Americas and Balfour Beatty Communities testified they agree with these protections. There are nine other privatized housing companies with smaller footprints on military installations. Asked after the hearing whether these other companies have also agreed with these three key protections, Potochney said they have agreed.
It’s been a year since military spouses first testified before lawmakers about black mold growing out of the walls, rodents, and water leaks in their family housing, and their frustration dealing with landlords and the military to get it fixed. A few weeks after that hearing, the service secretaries announced they were drafting a tenant bill of rights, which would, among other things, allow for the tenant’s rent to be withheld from the landlord while the resident’s dispute is being heard by a neutral decision maker. That rent is generally the service member’s Basic Allowance for Housing.
Lawmakers Tuesday heard testimony from two military families who had experienced problems with mold, and their frustration in getting it addressed. An Army colonel testified that if he and his wife had known about the maintenance history of their house at Fort Meade, Maryland, they wouldn’t have moved in, illustrating the importance of one of the key protections.
Lawmakers then grilled the executives about their role in allowing the problems to reach such a level. The privatization effort began in the late 1990s as an effort to fix a $20 billion backlog of maintenance problems in dilapidated military housing, as the military was using money meant to maintain housing for other operation and maintenance needs.
“Essentially, the system was set up as a gravy train for each of your companies … There’s nothing wrong with profit, but that that occurred without a way for military families to hold you accountable, it’s outrageous and unacceptable,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., chairwoman of the subcommittee.
The executives provided information about steps they’ve taken to address problems, such making additional investments in the housing, setting up communications frameworks with families, improving oversight of work orders and quality control of the repair and maintenance, improving employee training, and other actions.
Wasserman Schultz noted that all the improvements to their operations that the executives had detailed in their testimony should have been in place in the beginning. “How could you let military family housing become so neglected and dilapidated, and then in turn not respond to concerns and issues raised by families in a timely manner? How is it that we could be in this place, that you so badly neglected your responsibility?” she asked.
Denis Hickey, CEO of Lendlease Americas, said he believed that a percentage of residents were not being heard, and no structure was set up for them to be heard. The companies have been working on improving communication with residents in these housing communities.
Jeff Guild, vice president of Lincoln Military Housing, said that although he wasn’t with the company when the projects started, he understands that initially there was a time when projects were operated properly, but they drifted away from systems of oversight.
Military families who have had to move out of their privatized housing due to mold and other health and safety issues say these displacements bring a whole new level of frustration.
Lawmakers warned they will be keeping a close eye on the companies. “Know that this subcommittee, through its continued oversight, will for every remaining year of your 50-year management contracts hold you to these commitments,” Cartwright told the executives.
Two military tenants testified about mold issues with their homes that they believe have affected their families’ health. They would have benefited from those tenant protections, such as their house’s maintenance history. They also suggest further protections. Linne Gherdovich and her husband, an Air Force colonel, moved into their home at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling — along with their six children, last September, months after issues of mold in military housing came to light.
They were met with a foul odor the day they walked in the door, she said, and the landlord, Hunt Military Communities, had the carpet replaced. They learned later that the company hadn’t had the house approved for occupancy by the base command, as was required. Within days, all their children developed respiratory symptoms, with hacking coughs and constant congestion in the younger children, including their 2-year-old son Rollin, who was born with a rare medical condition. She and her husband were frustrated with lack of information about the levels of mold and possible contamination, which could be especially harmful because of his medical condition.
The installation command team has been supportive of the family, she said. The base commander and vice commander came to inspect the house after they learned it hadn’t been approved for occupancy, she said, but were forced outside by the symptoms they experienced while inside. They ordered a third party inspection, but the day before the inspection, Hunt hurried to have all ductwork either cleaned or replaced, Gherdovich said. The inspection was performed, but the family was not informed about the results and was allowed to stay for another two weeks before Hunt decided to remediate. Hunt moved the family of eight into a three-bedroom house.
In addition to the mold, it was later found that tiles containing asbestos fibers had been cut during remediation, and had contaminated many of their belongings. Those belongings are still in the home, and Hunt has offered to pay them about $33,000 for belongings appraised at $60,000. Hunt also refused to pay $2,700 for the environmental tests the couple paid for, and haven’t paid fair market for their moving costs, Gherdovich said.
“I worry about the young airmen who can’t afford to pay the $2,700 out of pocket for testing like we did,” she said.
Hunt Military Communities President John Ehle said he was “deeply disturbed” by Gherdovich’s testimony, and will be directly reviewing the case. “No family should have to experience what was described this morning,” he said.
Gherdovich and Army Col. Scott Gerber advocate hiring independent inspectors to do environmental tests. They should also report their findings back to the tenant, rather than the housing company, she said.
Noting that the military is approaching the traditionally heaving moving season, Gerber said he and his wife wouldn’t have moved into their home at Fort Meade if they’d known about the pre-existing mold and water damage, which is why having the previous maintenance records available to families is important. The housing is managed by Corvias.
Gerber hired an inspector to conduct tests, and learned that for five months the upstairs heating and air conditioning system had been blowing mold spores and insulation on them as they slept. After five months of suffering, and trying to get the problems corrected, they were moved to temporary quarters, which also had issues, with a gas leak, and a leak in the kitchen sink. When his wife became ill, they found mold in that home.
They were offered $40,000 if they would sign a non-disclosure agreement, but decided instead to try to help other families. Among other things, they paid for an independent mold inspector and certified master housing inspector to test 16 homes and of those, 13 registered elevated levels of toxic mold.
In addition to three additional key protections in the tenant bill of rights, and independent inspectors, military families should be part of a formal process to give them a voice, with representatives from each housing neighborhood in the community, Gerber said.