By Joshua Schneyer and Andrea Januta
WEST POINT, New York (Reuters) - One U.S. military base has dubbed it Operation Victory Homefront. It's a mission the world's most powerful military never envisioned.
To safeguard American service families living on U.S. bases around the world, the military branches have been dispatching commanders to visit nearly 300,000 housing units since February and document health and safety hazards – many of the military's own making.
The mobilization represents the biggest overhaul of U.S. military housing since the Department of Defense began privatizing its family dwellings in 1996. The operation comes in response to a Reuters series, Ambushed at Home, that revealed how families living on U.S. bases were exposed to lead poisoning, mold-related illnesses, ceiling collapses and pest infestations.
"In my 23 years in the Army I've never seen them tackle a problem so head on," said Colonel Harry Marson, the garrison commander at West Point, site of the U.S. Military Academy north of New York City. Marson is hiring additional housing staff, auditing maintenance records, and overseeing home visits on the post along the Hudson River.
To track the military's response, Reuters visited two bases, spoke with dozens of families, interviewed military leaders and reviewed scores of documents. What emerged is a picture of a sharp departure from decades of lax housing oversight, along with lingering concern among military families that the changes won't stick.
In surveys conducted to date, the military received reports of more than 10,000 homes needing safety upgrades or repairs, resulting in thousands of work orders, Department of Defense officials said at an April 4 House Armed Services Committee hearing. Hundreds of tenants have been moved out of base homes, at least temporarily. While the military says most homes are safe, it has acknowledged long-festering problems.
"It's an embarrassment where we are," Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told Congress last month. "I'm not going to defend anything. It's a leadership failure."
One priority: a hiring spree on bases. At the recent hearing, the Army said it has already hired 119 new housing staff, and expects its private real estate partners to employ hundreds more, according to Alex Beehler, an Army assistant secretary. The Air Force has requested $31 million from Congress to hire 250 housing staff, said John Henderson, an Air Force assistant secretary.
The total cost of the response effort is still being calculated, and the military has said its private industry partners should foot a significant portion of the bill. Last year, an internal Pentagon estimate put the price of just one new Army housing inspection program at up to $386 million.
Since then, the housing crisis has prompted four scathing congressional hearings and a growing grassroots movement of military families active on social media and in the halls of Congress.
Army Secretary Mark Esper told Reuters in February that the news reports had alerted the military to "unconscionable" conditions. He and other top Army officials have since visited housing on bases across the country.
MISTRUST OF LANDLORDS
Yet even as some families laud the actions taken by the military so far, many expressed distrust of the program's private housing contractors – more than a dozen large real estate developers and property managers who hold 50-year contracts to operate base housing in partnerships with the service branches. These private ventures, which house around 700,000 tenants, collect nearly $4 billion in annual rent payments.
"No one can tell me who these companies answer to," said Leigh Tuttle, an Army wife whose children developed respiratory illnesses while residing in a mold-infested home at Fort Polk in Louisiana.
For years, Reuters found, many families had little recourse as some of their children were sickened or suffered irreversible developmental delays. Federal base communities are typically outside the purview of state and local building code or environmental inspectors. Unlike in civilian communities, base tenants have often had limited ability to challenge powerful landlords in business with their military employers.
In March, a reporter met with five affected families at Army Fort Meade in Maryland, the largest military installation in the capital region and site of the secretive National Security Agency. All had recently been removed from homes with mold, dilapidated roofs or other problems. Under pressure from Army leadership, the private housing venture operated by real estate firm Corvias has been repairing homes and conducting air quality tests across the base's nearly 2,900 dwellings.
Navy spouse Sandra Buitrago said she's relieved her family now has a hazard-free Meade home, after a two-year ordeal in a house containing black mold, crumbling beams and a gaping hole in the floor of her kids' room. They now rely on prescription medicine for respiratory ailments, according to medical records. The family has thrown away mold-riddled personal belongings that cost more than $10,000, including a sectional couch, bed sets and chairs. In the replacement home, they sleep on air mattresses.
"It was either keep our stuff or have our kids healthy," Buitrago said.
Corvias is poised to receive more than $1 billion in fees from its Army housing ventures over the lifespan of its contracts, Reuters reported last year. The Buitragos say they have received support from base commanders, and are seeking reimbursements from Corvias.
The company said it is committed to providing better service but that families, like the Buitragos, must allow a third party to assess damages before Corvias can pay; the company said that hasn't happened yet.
"Corvias is working hard to do right by this family and all other families in the program," a spokeswoman wrote. "Corvias is taking a wide range of actions to improve military housing and return to the gold standard our residents expect and deserve."
At Meade, some changes are visible. Many home exteriors have been power-washed, and several units are undergoing extensive mold remediation. An environmental inspection firm is making rounds. More Corvias maintenance vehicles are circulating.
West Point, the training ground for young Army cadets, has become a test case for fixes that could be applied at all 34 privatized Army family housing projects across the country.
Residents can now track the progress of home maintenance requests with a new online app, following complaints that work orders were slipping through the cracks.
Under a pilot program, Sarah Kline's family is among 10 so far whose rent has been withheld from West Point's housing partnership, operated by Pennsylvania-based Balfour Beatty Communities, encouraging the landlord to make swift repairs to their rental home.
Inspectors found mold damage in the Klines' kitchen, master bedroom and basement, more than a month after she complained about a roof leak. They also found groundwater seeping into the garage, an inspection report shows.
A Balfour Beatty spokeswoman said the company is making significant investments to improve its military housing ventures and "working closely with the Department of the Army and West Point Garrison Command."
West Point is offering this type of home inspection, conducted by an independent firm, to all residents who request it.
Kline is awaiting repairs but expressed confidence her home will be fixed. The Army, she said, is good at putting boots on the ground, but she worries the costly measures will be short-lived on military bases unless Congress and commanders sustain their vigilance.
"We have all this attention on the problem right now," Kline said. "I'm just worried we'll be having this discussion again in 10 years."
Some service families last year told Reuters they were fearful of career retaliation if they spoke out about housing hazards, and others complained of potentially fraudulent fees or move-out charges from private landlords. The Army recently ordered private housing ventures to stop collecting some fees, and suspended an energy conservation program that left some families with large electricity bills.
To probe these matters, military inspectors general from each branch are conducting internal investigations, interviewing families away from commands and housing operators, and exploring whether private contractors breached their agreements or committed financial fraud.
The Air Force's Henderson told Congress this month that fraudulent activity had been detected at the housing venture serving the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. One worker was recently arrested, and the private housing partner there, Texas-based Hunt Military Communities, has agreed to reimburse the Academy $169,000, he said.
In a statement, Hunt said its own audit first detected payment record discrepancies in 2017. The company said it ordered an investigation, notifying the Air Force and law enforcement. Residents lost no money, and Hunt volunteered to "make the project whole for the bad actions of a former employee," it said.
The latest improvements follow a raft of reforms announced last year. After an August 2018 Reuters report on lead poisoning threats to children in base housing, the Army began repairing homes and launched an inspection program for lead and other toxins. Legislation last year opened a military housing investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that is still under way.
Last month, the military unveiled a proposed tenant bill of rights meant to give base residents legal protections that tenants in most civilian communities take for granted, such as the ability to withhold rent from landlords who fail to fix hazards. Base residents get government rent stipends, which the Defense Department usually deposits directly into landlord-controlled accounts.
Earlier today, a group of Democrats in the House and Senate proposed a series of new bills aimed at protecting children from lead poisoning on military bases. And, proposed additional legislation would mandate even tighter oversight of base housing from military officials, such as requiring the Defense Department to punish the private contractors for maintenance failures by slashing the performance incentive fees they receive.
The failings have bruised the reputation of a housing program often hailed as a privatization success. Launched in 1996, the Military Housing Privatization Initiative became the biggest-ever corporate takeover of U.S. federal housing. It shifted ownership of more than 200,000 base family housing units to private real estate developers and property managers under confidential 50-year contracts, which the military now says must be renegotiated.
The firms agreed to build or refurbish housing across more than 100 U.S. bases, allowing budget-constrained military branches to focus on other pressing matters, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In return, the private ventures collect rent stipends from military families and are entitled to lucrative fees. About a third of military families live on bases.
Yet the military failed to act on earlier warnings of trouble. A Defense Department Inspector General report in 2015 found "pervasive" safety deficiencies in base housing. But the Pentagon rejected the department's own recommendation to step up inspections, saying it would "impose more government intrusion into a private business enterprise."
Now, military branches are urgently reversing that stance. "The Army needs to get back involved in the housing business," Esper said.
(Additional reporting by M.B. Pell. Editing by Ronnie Greene)