Originally published on March 8, 2019 10:15 am
Pfc. Anthony Blankenship points to mold on the grout of his bathroom and a greenish mildew stain around the tiles next to the toilet.
"That's kind of a mold pattern growing underneath," he says. "Workers at times just put new grout over the mold. At times, contractors wouldn't show up at all for problems ranging from clogged plumbing to faulty ventilation ducts."
"We'd call again, and they'd say we don't have any recollection you put in a work order," says Blankenship, who moved into this ranch-style house at Fort Bragg, N.C., back in August with his wife, Brittney, and their toddler, Jason.
"A lot of families, unfortunately, their house is worse than ours," says Brittney.
These stories are common at military facilities around the United States. Thousands of military families are suffering from shoddy work or ignored calls for repairs from the private companies that provide maintenance for military housing.
Problems range from mildew to bad plumbing, leaking ceilings or cracked foundations.
Back in the late 1990s, Congress shifted the maintenance of on-base housing from the military services to private companies to save money and speed the process. A half-dozen companies are responsible for the work at Army housing around the country.
Army Secretary Mark Esper toured the Blankenship home and said he and other Defense Department leaders would get to the bottom of it.
"Encourage your neighbors to come forward," he said. "It will help us fix the problem."
But surveys show many families are afraid to come forward. Some companies threaten them, saying they will call their commanders if they complain, according to the Military Family Advisory Network, a nonprofit group, which heard from 17,000 respondents.
The current problems came to light after a Reuters news investigation late last year.
The private company that handles Fort Bragg is Corvias Military Living. One of its top officials, Heath Burleson, accompanied Esper to the Blankenship house.
"We lost our way," Burleson says of the company, adding that some local Corvias officials have been fired. But he says there's also a "financial component" to the housing problems. The basic allowance for housing, which every soldier receives and which finances the program, has been cut by Congress over recent years.
"So therefore less revenue, less opportunity to have the proper use of expenses," Burleson says.
Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and also visited the Blankenship home. He says initially the private contractor program seemed to work.
"There was an inflection point, and we're trying to figure out whether [basic allowance for housing] was one of the contributors," Tillis says.
A Senate committee hearing
On Thursday, Esper, the secretaries of the Air Force and Navy and their military chiefs of staff appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee. They all told lawmakers that they would make sure that service members lived in decent housing and that companies addressed the complaints.
"In too many cases, it is clear the private housing companies failed to uphold their end of the bargain, a failure that was enabled by the Army's insufficient oversight," Esper said. "We are determined to investigate these problems and to hold our housing contractors and chains of command accountable."
The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are preparing a "Tenant Bill of Rights" to ensure the accountability of private housing companies and to place more oversight authority in the hands of local military leaders.
At the hearing, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said he believes the key is not changing the private contractor system and returning to a government program. He said there must be better oversight of contractors.
"We need to hold them to the standards in the contract," he said.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said she wants leadership to review financial incentives for contractors and consider withholding payments.
And as far as ignored work orders?
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, suggested using technology to tackle that issue.
"You could develop, I would call it, a 'Rat App' where the tenant can take a picture, send it. It would automatically go to the person managing the contract and the contractor," King said. "And a clock would start running, and there would be a way of keeping track of whether that repair was made and how it was made and how soon it was made."
Such an app may be too late for Sgt. Terry Blood and his wife, Krysta, who showed the shoddy repairs at their house at Fort Bragg.
Krysta points to the ceiling inside a closet in her garage. She says a subcontractor just plastered over what is a widening stain from a leak that has also damaged the floor. The source of the leak is the bathtub.
"For four years, that tub water has been leaking from children's baths," she says. "Can you imagine what kind of water has been in between the floors for that time?"
Are their friends having troubles as well?
"Pretty much the exact same issues," says Terry Blood. "Actually one of our friends right across the street, they just got surveyed, and they have found cracks. In the summer months they have grass growing up through their floor."
During Thursday's hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D- Conn., called for even tougher measures against contractors that do poor work, ignore resident complaints or threaten tenants.
He asked that the Justice Department investigate.
"What's happened here is criminal," Blumenthal said.
That brought a smattering of applause from those at the hearing.
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