Black Mold, Gas Leaks and Vermin: The Tragedy of Military Housing
Government-provided housing is one of the many incentives young men and women receive for joining the U.S. military. I’ve seen base housing at Fort Benning which looked pretty similar to my old college dorm room, and I’ve observed exquisitely-manicured lawns and historically-preserved homes at Jackson Barracks in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.
Where military personnel and their families live should be one of the last things they worry about when they get assigned a new duty station. It’s the military’s obligation to ensure service members have safe, suitable, and comfortable quarters, regardless of rank. According to a 2005 study conducted by the Rand Corporation, the U.S. government spent approximately $58,000 to $175,000 per service member each year.
However, recent reports from several military spouses are exposing what may be one of the most egregious contract violations in the history of the United States Armed Forces. According to a recent report from Reuters, several thousand houses rented to military families are in extreme disrepair, and many are considered health hazards. The problem affects military personnel from nearly all branches across the country.
One company responsible for these housing units is the Corvias Group, a real estate and property management firm based in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. For nearly 20 years, Corvias has acquired military housing units at an alarming rate across the country. As of this writing, the company is directly responsible for maintaining and managing 26,000 homes rented by military personnel.
Corvias gained contracts for these homes in 2002 as part of the Pentagon’s “U.S. Military Housing Privatization Initiative,” which brought in private companies to manage more than 200,000 U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) housing units. Although some firms do a great job ensuring U.S. service members and their families are living in well-maintained houses, others, like Corvias, seem comfortable letting the units fall into disrepair.
Of Mice and Mold
Rachael Kilpatrick, a military spouse living at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, recently launched a petition on change.org to bring more attention to this issue. Her campaign, “Hold Corvias accountable,” has more than 3,500 signatures at press time, and contains a shocking image of a Corvias-owned property covered in mold. According to Kilpatrick, the issues with the Corvias homes include “mold, hurricane damage, gas leaks, unsafe conditions causing tenants to fall ill, unprofessionalism, and unsanitary houses.”
“There are service members and their families getting sick from these houses,” wrote Kilpatrick on her petition’s webpage. “They are not up to standard. We sacrifice a lot, our health shouldn’t be one of them just because we want to live on base. Someone needs to hold Corvias accountable for their actions, or lack thereof.”
Other military families living at different bases reported similar issues. Leigh Tuttle, who lives in on-base housing at Fort Polk, Louisiana, told SOFREP Radio that the mold was so bad in her home, her children were getting sick and her husband, a member of the Special Operations Forces community, was prescribed an inhaler.
“Our first and only experience living on base was at Fort Polk,” said Tuttle while speaking to SOFREP Radio. “We came from living off base in Okinawa, Japan, and everyone [in our family] was healthy and happy. Our son, Weston, was two at the time and a thriving child who could go outside and play for hours and run around. Within two weeks of moving into that house on Fort Polk, he was developing respiratory issues, and it was very unlike him. Throughout our time there, it was getting progressively worse, my husband was getting sick, and no one was able to give us answers.”
Tuttle initially tried to contact the housing company, but after getting the runaround, she finally took matters into her own hands and ripped up the carpet herself. To her horror, she discovered black mold growing across the floor. Tuttle and her husband also found mold spores in the air ducts, and some of the worst growth was above her young son’s bed.
Army families aren’t the only ones affected by these subpar living conditions, and Corvias isn’t the only company neglecting military family housing. According to another report from Reuters, housing units allocated for U.S. Marine Corps personnel in Camp Pendleton, California, are in similar shape.
One Marine family, Matt and Sharon Limon, lived in on-base housing owned by the Lincoln Military Housing (LMH) company when they were literally pushed out by a mice infestation. The mice were so bad, “feces and urine” covered the floor. Although LMH sent pest control to lay traps, the mice soon returned after a water leak. The Limons had no choice but to take out a loan to find off-post housing—and LMH sent the family a bill for some of the damages that resulted from the mice.
“The two-year-old, he doesn’t say very many words, but ‘mouse poop’ is one of them,” said Sharon Limon, while speaking to Reuters. “I would pick him up out of bed in the morning and he’d have mouse poop stuck to his leg.”
Unfortunately, such conditions are common. Tuttle estimates about one in seven on-base housing units are unsafe. Although local and state laws shield civilians from slumlords, military personnel aren’t afforded the same protections. In many cases, the only option service members have to escape dangerous living conditions is to pay out-of-pocket for an off-base house or apartment.
The families have a choice,” said Jarl Bliss, Lincoln Military Housing’s president. “They don’t have to live with us.”
Firms such as Corvias and LMH have massive DOD contracts. In total, the DOD paid $4 billion a year for housing services. According to Reuters, LMH owns approximately 36,000 on-base housing units. Clearly, the military isn’t getting what it paid for, and that amount of money is certainly no excuse for substandard housing conditions.
Despite the widespread occurrences of housing-related health issues which affect service members and their families, little is published by Army Medical Command regarding this issue. One report from Army Military Command (MEDCOM) dated 2016 touted MEDCOM’s response to mold growth inside DOD-owned structures at Fort Knox. According to the report, MEDCOM takes mold growth seriously and conducted “60 mold evaluations” on different on-base structures, and brought in dozens of civilian contractors to remove the fungus.
“We’ve had up to 40 contractors at one time working mold remediation issues for us,” said Pat Walsh, director of public works at Fort Knox. “The reason for that large number of people is we treat every mold call as a life, health, and safety issue. It may or may not be, but we treat it that way. We respond to multiple calls and we have to bring more contract personnel to address the issue.”
These measures were implemented in DOD-owned buildings, but for the private off-base housing units owned by companies like Corvias and LMH, there’s little the DOD can do. There’s an Army office of people who are supposed to act as liaisons between the DOD and the housing companies, but many service members are unaware these people exist, or where to find them.
The organization, Residential Communities Initiative (RCI), covers “98 percent” of the “Army’s family housing inventory,” inside the United States. The RCI website boasts an online photo gallery of pristine houses available to Soldiers and their families. However, photos posted to social media platforms like twitter tell a different tale.
MEDCOM’s lack of response is surprising given its mission statement: “Army Medicine provides sustained health services and research in support of the Total Force to enable readiness and conserve the fighting strength while caring for our Soldiers for Life and Families.” However, with service members reporting serious health issues such as asthma and other respiratory ailments, it’s clear that with regard to decrepit housing, MEDCOM is failing to live up to its mission.
However, whatever actions happen in the future to ensure off-base housing units are safe for several military families who have been victimized by these private corporations, it’s too little too late.
“I might have to explain to my son that he can’t become a third generation Green Beret because of the medical issues he developed as a result of these living conditions,” said Tuttle.
Written by Josephy LaFave for theNEWSREP.com