The private-sector companies that manage housing on U.S. military bases have been under fire for problems like mold and poor maintenance, and Congress is considering reforms.
Now one of the companies — which operates the housing on more than a dozen installations —has unveiled an unusual plan to speed up renovations. It says the initiative could be a model for other companies.
John Picerne, the founder and CEO Rhode of Island-based Corvias, says he and a group of lenders are financing $325 million in major renovations and utility upgrades to about 16,000 homes on seven Army posts.
He said the program will pay for itself because Corvias will be able to pay off the lenders from the savings the program will create.
"We have an estimated $300 million in savings over the next 30 years in energy efficiencies, and a portion of that will come from lowering the maintenance costs," Picerne said in an interview. "Obviously, more predictive maintenance is far less expensive than emergency maintenance."
Troops who don't live in barracks get a housing allowance. Most use it to live off base, but for those who use base housing, the allowance goes to companies like Corvias. It covers all housing and utility costs. In some cases with older houses, Corvias charges less, and the troops pocket the difference.
Picerne says that a few years back, reductions in the housing allowance hit his company at the same time the Army was shrinking by thousands of troops after the peak of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Occupancy rates fell, the company's income fell, and he said the company made a mistake by scaling back spending on renovations.
"Once you kind of take your eye off that ball, now you're playing catch up," he said. "And I think what we're doing here by making this large investment is trying to get ahead of the curve again, instead of always playing from behind the game."
The installations where the program will pay for upgrades are Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Meade in Maryland, Fort Riley in Kansas, Fort Rucker in Alabama, Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Fort Polk in Louisiana, and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
The company also manages housing on several Air Force bases, but they're not part of the new program.
The new program also is unrelated to hundreds of other teardowns, construction, and renovations that the company already had planned as part of the normal cycle of its long-term agreement with the Pentagon.
New Bathrooms, More Bedrooms, More Automation
When the companies began taking over management of base housing in the mid-1990s, the homes were often in poor condition. They've since torn down some of the older homes and replaced them, but much of the remaining housing stock is older.
Heather Fuller works for Corvias at its Fort Bragg office, and on a recent day she led a tour of one of the homes the company manages - an older, vacant brick ranch duplex.
It didn't show significant wear and tear, but the inside is about to be gutted and completely renovated with the new funding.
"It's just dated, so the tiles in the bathrooms, they're small," Fuller said. "So we're renovating and making those larger. And we've taken some of these floor plans and added a bedroom, so that it would have four bedrooms rather than the three."
A total of 280 homes on Fort Bragg are getting the same treatment, while several thousand more will get new heating and cooling systems and other improvements.
Similar upgrades will be done other Army bases where Corvias manages housing.
Part of the plan also is to install computerized controls that continually collect information on things like the heating and cooling systems, which could help the company know when maintenance is needed before expensive repairs are required.
Fort Bragg resident Diane Woodrell, a military spouse who served on a housing advisory group, said the remodeling initiative is a plus to Army families like hers.
"If I'm being told by any military housing person, that 'Hey, you know, we've got homes that we have literally just renovated,' I want to snag up on that," she said. "I'd have zero worries on anything on that. No mold issues, no bug issues or anything like that."
Many military families who live in housing managed by Corvias or other companies have complained about maintenance requests that are ignored or badly handled. Several testified to Congress about problems with their homes, the management companies, and military officials on bases who didn't bring enough pressure to bear on the companies.
Woodrell said that in her experience, maintenance issues at Bragg are quickly dealt with.
"It's a phone call to get it taken care of," she said.
Picerne and several leaders of other military housing companies testified at that Senate hearing earlier this year. There, he apologized for what he admitted were unacceptable conditions in some of the housing.
He said in the recent interview that he felt like things were getting back on track now.
"We used to be the absolute gold standard to how this program ran," Picerne said. "Customer satisfaction and so forth, we believed we were at the gold standard, and when you look at all the data, that was supported.
"So we definitely had gone backward, and we needed to move back forward," he said.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2019 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.
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