On April 15, Army wife Rebecca Winn’s former neighbor called to let her know a junk removal truck had pulled up to Winn’s previous residence, loading her children’s toys into the back of the truck, in the rain.
The day before, the family had cleared their final inspection at their residence in privatized housing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, moving out because of what they claim in a lawsuit was mold in their basement laundry room. And that same day, April 14, the landlord notified them they had 15 days — until April 29 — to remove their remaining belongings they’d left in the basement pending an insurance claim.
“Every toy my children had gotten from Christmas was down in that basement. They just threw it in the truck,” said Winn, who had driven immediately to the house. “My grandmother’s quilts, my daughter’s brand new bed we’d just bought a year ago, was destroyed.” They have six children, ages 1 to 8.
The privatized housing company told the Winns it was a “clerical error” that sent the truck out, according to Winn. The claims of damage to those items — and other costs associated with finding mold in their privatized housing residence —are the basis for allegations in a lawsuit the Winns have filed against their landlord, Aurora Military Housing.
They filed suit on July 1 in the District/Superior Court for the state of Alaska at Palmer, naming AMH Military Housing II, LLC as the defendant. The district/superior court is the state’s trial court system.
In a statement sent to Military Times, Aurora Military Housing officials said the family made “false and unsubstantiated claims.” The company said it agreed to allow the family to move to another unit to “mitigate any residual concerns they may have had with the initial unit, no matter how outlandish they may have been.” JL Properties, together with Hunt Construction Co., owns and operates the 3,262 privatized housing units in at JBER, and sent the response.
The Winns join a string of other military families around the country who have sued their privatized housing companies for mold-related issues.
Rebecca Winn and her husband, Army WO1 Shane Winn, are asking for damages related to what they claim is the mold discovery in their laundry room — for costs of mold testing, loss of belongings because of the mold and because of damage to items dumped in the truck; reimbursement of their basic allowance for housing for the months they were living with the mold, and reimbursement of their costs to move their household goods to another house.
Winn said the estimate is “thousands of dollars.” Their case is assigned in state district court, which hears civil cases involving claims not exceeding $100,000 per defendant.
The privatized housing landlord denies the allegations, and contends the family started making “false and unsubstantiated claims regarding their home, including the existence of significant mold,” after the company denied the Winns’ request to move into a larger, newer home. The move would have been “contrary to the company’s policy,” according to a statement provided to Military Times by JL Properties, Inc..
Rebecca Winn vehemently denied both asking to move before the mold issues started and making false and unsubstantiated claims. She shared extensive video and audio, mold test results, detailed time lines about conversations, and other information.
“Our family has made four military moves in five years, and we would never opt for a move unless we had to,” she said. And she questioned why her family would want to move in the winter if they didn’t have to, especially with six children. She told representatives from the Air Force housing office and bio-environmental office that they just wanted safe housing, she said, and didn’t care what rank band the new housing was in.
And, Winn countered, after leaving the mold, they moved into a smaller home, but they still have four bedrooms. It’s also in enlisted housing, so the company is still receiving their officer’s basic allowance for housing.
The family moved into Aurora Military Housing in May, 2019. According to the lawsuit, Shane Winn first discovered the mold Feb. 10 in the laundry area in the basement, and contacted Aurora Military Housing the same day. The following day, AMH sent two quality assurance/quality control workers, who said they found “dry, dead mold.” They scrubbed a one-foot section with Tilex, and sprayed the area with Concrobium, a disinfectant cleaner, according to the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, the Winns had ongoing concerns, and more mold was discovered March 4. They paid for two mold tests at a private lab at two different times, which found different types of black mold, with mold actively growing in those two separate areas of the laundry room. An Aurora employee told the Winns that the washing machine had overflowed at some point before they moved in, according to the lawsuit.
According to JL Properties’ statement, “The family continued to make unsubstantiated claims, requesting work on multiple occasions and then refusing to allow our maintenance teams or contractors to enter the property and perform work.
“Over a period of months, the Air Force also conducted multiple independent investigations, to include two inspections by the Inspector General; all of these resulted in the same conclusions, that the claims of dangerous toxic mold in the home were completely and totally unsubstantiated,” according to the JL Properties statement.
JL Properties did not immediately respond to questions about those investigations or inspections, while Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson officials did not immediately provide answers to questions about them. Winn said the government housing office “has been good to us” during the process.
According to the lawsuit, the Winns contend that the company failed to follow corrective maintenance procedures in handling the mold in their home, so they were reluctant to have the company do any more work on their home. They fought to move to another unit because they were concerned any remediation wouldn’t be done correctly, Winn said.
Going against company policy, and “at the express request” of the Air Force, Aurora officials say they allowed the family to move into a newer, more modern home, according to the company statement. They took this step “as a show of good faith to the family to mitigate any residual concerns they may have had with the initial unit, no matter how outlandish they may have been. The family continued to make false and unsubstantiated claims, including the filing of an insurance claim for the property damage by mold, which was denied. ….
“All of these events culminated in the family filing a baseless lawsuit against Aurora.”
The Military Housing Advocacy Network worked with the Winn family “to follow every step any family could conceivably imagine to aid them in seeking resolution,” said Sarah Kline, an advocate with the nonprofit MHAN. “We have provided assistance in involving the government housing office, installation command, service member’s command, legislators, JAG, IG, private mold testing, and it is unfortunate that none of these avenues have provided resolution.
“When this occurs, we fully support our families seeking legal counsel and filing complaints, as it is their only avenue for recourse. We are hopeful that the Winn family will prevail in court.”
“It shouldn’t be this hard to get decent, safe housing up here,” Winn said.
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.