MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Frequent shuffling is an expected part of life for active duty service members and their families.
Breanna Bragg and Rachel Vidot both moved thousands of miles away from their last homes to Fort Belvoir in Virginia around two years ago.
Bragg and her family moved from California most recently; Vidot and her family came from Nevada.
They are both familiar with relocation due to station changes, but they said they are now displaced for a reason they never expected to encounter on base: mold and infestation in their homes.
Bragg, whose husband is in the Army, is a mother of two kids, ages seven and one.
Vidot, whose husband is in the Air Force, is a mother of five children, ages nine and under.
“It started off with a leak,” said Bragg. “Sewage came down from my ceiling.”
Bragg said the problem only got worse from there.
“That then turned into me finding mold in the house underneath multiple layers of laminate,” said Bragg.
Bragg said an independent inspector even found a disturbing discovery inside the walls.
“She found dead animals in my wall bits and cavities,” said Bragg. “The animals rotted and all the insects that were on the animals came into the house.”
For Vidot, mold has been her main concern.
“It’s literally inside of our HVAC system, so we were breathing this in for only God knows how long,” said Vidot. “My children have been breathing this in.”
Like many military families, they rely on the Basic Housing Allowance (BAH) provided by the military, and they can’t afford to move off base.
“It’s very hard,” said Vidot. “It’s such a hard pill to swallow because it’s so expensive everywhere we go that we have no choice but to live on base.”
Both women and their families are now in temporary housing.
“They offered us a house at day 45,” said Bragg about getting temporary housing after flagging the problems.
Vidot said mold was even recently discovered in her temporary home as well and showed us a lab report that said “fungal spores are found everywhere.”
Both women said they also haven’t gotten answers about wanting to replace the furniture and other belongings left behind in their original homes that may have been impacted by the mold.
“Why is it acceptable for us to live in these situations when my husband has deployed seven times?” said Vidot. “He’s just given his entire life to the military.”
Even though the families live on the military base, their homes are not managed by the military.
The housing is managed by a private company called the Michaels Organization, which has a contract with the military.
Other Fort Belvoir residents have filed a class action lawsuit against Michaels Management Services, LLC. about similar housing complaints including water intrusion, mold, and pest infestation.
“The intent behind the privatization of military housing is simple: to provide military families the same quality of life in housing as the civilians they defend,” according to the complaint. “Unfortunately, as Plaintiffs and their families have learned, the Defendants -- private for-profit companies that own and manage military housing at Fort Belvoir in suburban Washington, D.C. – care more about their profit margins than the servicemembers and families whom they house.”
Bragg and Vidot are not listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit but said they are working with the attorney representing the families involved in the case.
The Michaels Organization declined our request for an on-camera interview.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Michaels Organization said:
Fort Belvoir Residential Communities provides high-quality housing to service members and their families and has implemented and is committed to the Tenant Bill of Rights, which is prominently featured on our community website and provided to each resident upon move-in. In addition, Fort Belvoir Residential Communities and our local management team work diligently to promptly resolve any issues that arise with residents’ individual homes. This includes, when necessary, providing temporary housing for residents whose homes may be under repair. We have established procedures and protocols in place that include independent and government inspections and oversight to ensure necessary repairs are completed successfully.
Our Washington News Bureau obtained information from Army officials at the Pentagon that painted a different picture.
According to Army spokesperson Elizabeth Chamberlain, a recently released 2022 housing tenant satisfaction survey gave their housing an overall score of 68.8, which is below average.
“The Army requires installations with scores below 70 on the tenant satisfaction survey to submit detailed corrective action plans within 30 days of the release of survey results,” said Chamberlain. “Currently, the Army has requested from MMH a specific plan to address the conditions that lead to the below average overall score at Fort Belvoir.
The survey showed the scores were even lower for some individual categories.
Tenants gave the housing 61.9 for responsiveness and follow through, and 67.9 for property satisfaction.
Some categories were scored higher, with quality of leasing services receiving a score of 77.2, and readiness to solve problems getting a score of 71.1.
According to U.S. Army Public Affairs, the results were released on September 1, meaning the corrective action plan would need to be submitted by the end of the month.
A spokesperson for the Michaels Organization confirmed it is working on the corrective action plan saying:
Michaels welcomes the opportunity to receive feedback in order to continuously improve the resident experience. Any survey, or means of communication with our residents, allows us to utilize the feedback received to do just that. The CEL survey opportunity in particular asks for an action plan to be submitted and we will comply with those established guidelines.
We asked the Army about what it takes for the military to terminate a contract with a housing company.
Chamberlain acknowledged that the Army is aware of problems that need to be addressed at Fort Belvoir but said there has been no reason shown to terminate the contract at this time.
The Army has the authority to terminate any privatized housing project’s property management service provider that fails to provide safe and habitable housing and fails to cure deficiencies to the Army’s satisfaction,” said Chamberlain. “We recognize that there are housing issues that must be resolved at Fort Belvoir and we have notified Michaels accordingly. Provided Michaels continues to demonstrate substantial progress in resolving those issues, the Army will not have any reason to terminate MMH as the Property Manager for Fort Belvoir Residential Communities.
As for the residents, a spokesperson for the Fort Belvoir Public Affairs Office said residents have a 24-hour hotline to report issues and there is a housing advocate to assist them.
In a statement, a spokesperson for USAG Fort Belvoir Public Affairs Office said:
We are deeply troubled by recent reports highlighting the conditions in some of our family housing on Fort Belvoir. The Garrison’s number one priority and obligation is to take care of our service members and their families. We are fully committed to working with all the parties involved and are in constant contact with the privatized housing provider to ensure they are meeting their obligations to provide safe, quality family housing for those who make Fort Belvoir their home.
Both U.S. Senators from Virginia said they are now working to help the families at Fort Belvoir.
“We have heard from families at Ft. Belvoir and are actively working with them and the Michaels Organization to come to a solution that effectively provides for our servicemembers, who have already sacrificed so much in service to our country,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) in a joint statement to our Washington News Bureau. “As always, it is our priority to ensure that military families are treated fairly and provided with housing that is safe and suitable and that any issues are resolved in a timely and appropriate manner, in accordance with Congressional reforms.”
The problems reported at Fort Belvoir are not unique.
Members of Congress have been investigating concerns with privatized military housing across the country for several years and have held Congressional hearings about the issue.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a bipartisan report exposing the ongoing mistreatment of military families living in privatized housing.
It focused a lot on problems reported at Fort Gordon in Georgia which is run by Balfour Beatty Communities, another private company.
“I heard stories about maintenance requests that were ignored,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) during an April 2022 Senate hearing. “Neglect, misconduct, and abuse that persisted even after Balfour Beatty plead guilty to a scheme to defraud the United States between 2013 and 2019.”
“When stationed in U.S. military installations, these men and women should expect to live in conditions that will not damage the health and safety of themselves and their families,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) during that hearing.
In response to the April Senate report, a spokesperson for Balfour Beatty said:
“We are disappointed that the PSI’s report does not accurately reflect the company’s level of commitment to its military residents and their families or acknowledge the significant steps that have been taken to address the small number of complaints that were discussed. The report, which was released before the hearing, includes multiple inaccuracies and mischaracterizations, which the company tried to correct before it was issued and will address again following the hearing. While we continually seek to improve, as an operator of 43,000 residences we are inevitably going to have to deal with challenges. The company remains focused on the safety, health, and wellbeing of its residents and on providing quality homes supported by prompt and effective customer service and maintenance support.”
But despite military families sounding the alarm to Congress, the military, and the housing companies, Bragg and Vidot argue there still isn’t enough oversight of these private companies or enough accountability.
“There’s no one really willing right now to make them do the right thing,” said Bragg.
“Home is supposed to be a safe place,” said Vidot. “Why aren’t we safe? Why aren’t we being taken care of?”
They are questions both families say they are still waiting to have answered.
©2022 Imagicomm Memphis, Inc.