Dozens of families attend Fort Lee Housing town hall; express wide-ranging health, safety concerns
Post residents painted a less-than-ideal picture of military family housing conditions here during a four-hour town hall session Feb. 27 at the Lee Theater.
Around 140 community members attended the information gathering session that had been mandated by Army leadership after recent Congressional testimony and visits by the Army secretary and chief of staff to Fort Meade, Md., brought to light serious maintenance issues within base dwellings operated by commercial housing partners.
Command team members repeatedly emphasized the intent throughout the meeting, underscoring their determination to assess the scope of the problem and implement sustained corrective actions.
“You are all the reason we are here tonight,” said Col. Hollie J. Martin, Fort Lee garrison commander in her introductory remarks. “Your feedback is extremely important to us, and we are grateful to have the opportunity to listen to what you have to say; to hear about your concerns. Our focus is on the quality of life that you have here at Fort Lee. We want to make sure you feel you’re living in a healthy, safe and secure environment.”
“We now realize we have fallen short in many areas with housing,” confirmed Brig. Gen. Douglas McBride Jr., Quartermaster General, who presided over the session in the stead of the senior commander who was away from post for mandatory training. “For that reason, we’re going to take a pause and figure out what is the state of readiness for our family housing situation. That’s why you’re here today. We want to hear from you.”
McBride promised a “100 percent assessment” of all housing units will be conducted by installation command teams, with concurrence from residents, before the middle of March. Work orders will be examined for deficiencies of both timeliness and adequacy.
“We’re going to set the books straight,” he acknowledged, “but the fact is we don’t know what we don’t know, so we want to get feedback directly from you to figure out what’s going on in this community.”
Another way the garrison is facilitating two-way communication, Martin noted, is the setup of a commander’s hotline – 804-734-6300 – through which residents can get help if they feel quality of life concerns are not being addressed or their home maintenance issues are not being resolved.
The commander displayed a listing of what is defined as emergency repairs – i.e. HVAC outages during extreme hot or cold weather, electrical hazards, gas leaks and water outages – and those that would be considered urgent such as a clogged sink, tub or shower; a range, oven or refrigerator failure; a wild animal in the home; and so on. The expected response time for emergency issues is one hour, she noted, and four hours for urgent needs. Routine maintenance requests should be resolved within eight business days.
“If you go through the appropriate work order process and don’t feel like you’re being heard, we want to know about it,” Martin assured. “You can contact our housing director (804-765-1976) – who isn’t Hunt Communities – or the commander’s hotline number.”
Vincent Grewatz, director of IMCOM-Training, was the final speaker of the pre-brief portion of the town hall. Referencing the transition to privatized housing over a decade ago, he said it was necessitated by the Army’s long-term inability to get the funding necessary to maintain such facilities and the attractiveness of turning the responsibility over to experts in the industry.
“(Over time) we found there were things we got fundamentally wrong,” Grewatz said. “We didn’t build in the accountability that needed to be there. Some of the associated financial stresses (BAH costs) should have been taken into consideration, and there wasn’t a clear understanding of oversight.
“So what we’re doing here tonight, as defined by the chief of staff and secretary of the Army, is addressing a crisis; one of confidence in the Army. You, our residents, Soldiers and families, are not happy with the support we’re providing as a garrison and as a partner…. We have got some things we need to correct that we missed when we built the program.”
The forum opened for questions, and speeding through housing areas was the first topic of discussion. One resident of Yorktown Drive said it happens frequently, and he has tried everything from shouting at passing vehicles to capturing their tag numbers and reporting them. Another occupant of that area said she notified the military police but was told they were unable to ticket individuals based on unverified reports.
Forum leaders offered a few proposed solutions, ranging from stepping up police patrols in areas where residents report the most incidents (a measure that was implemented the following day) to installing speed bumps if feasible. McBride encouraged the audience to keep getting tag numbers and reporting them so organization leaders can “get up-close and personal” with speeders to correct the problem that poses a hazard to pedestrians and children at play.
A Jackson Circle resident expressed concerns about the general lack of interest in dealing with maintenance issues. “I’ve heard about gas leaks that have gone unreported,” he said. “There’s mold that keeps being treated but people are told there’s nothing that can be done about it. There are people I know personally who are having electrical issues. They’re dealing with service cables laying across lawns like electrical cords. There are problems people are having that just aren’t being vocalized.”
The resident made note of a gas leak near Bus Stop 9 that neighbors ignored with the assumption it wouldn’t be fixed. The command team asked for further clarification and assured the occupant it would be looked at immediately. The issue was resolved by maintenance crews the following day.
A leaking pipe in the kids’ bathroom frustrated a Jefferson Terrace resident. “It flooded a closet at one point, then it leaked again and water went into a light in the kitchen on our first floor, which of course is an electrical hazard. When we called it in, they didn’t show up until the next day, and we had already cleaned most of it up to keep it from coming through the ceiling.”
The water that penetrated through to the light was never addressed, the resident said, and he expressed concern about the mold that has likely developed since then. He was one of several residents who reported chronic problem with fungus growth in the grout around sinks and tubs and in ventilation fans that they were unable to adequately clean with a vacuum as suggested by maintenance workers.
“I have allergies now that I suspect are related to it, plus we have a son who had open heart surgery just last June, and I’m sure that stuff we’re sucking in is just not good,” he said. “I’ve asked about having someone come out to clean the ducts completely and was told the (housing providers) could not do that; we would have to set that up and pay for it out of pocket.”
Other attendees reported similar experiences, including another Jefferson Terrace resident who moved here in June 2017. “By August of that year, I had already been taken to the hospital once for a respiratory issue caused by mold,” she said, “Just before that, our air conditioning unit outside froze and a technician came out, opened the door and said we should just let it thaw out. Then, a few months later, it froze again (with the same result), and there was no attempt to fix any leaks or resolve the problem.”
Concerns escalated, she said, when their children began experiencing similar breathing issues and she would break out in hives within minutes of being home.
“It was suggested that we need to move to a different house, but that’s another whole issue because it means relocating our children to another school plus there is all sorts of paperwork we need to get signed by the command and letters verifying we have enough time remaining here, or we can just give up and go search for a house off-post just so my family doesn’t have to go to the emergency room as often as we’re going.”
Medical issues believed to be associated with mold were reported by another resident from Jefferson Terrace. “About a month and a half after moving in, members of my family began experiencing respiratory issues,” she said. “We talked to our neighbors and found out they were dealing with the same problem. We reached out to housing and it was the same story; getting it looked at was our problem and would have to come out of our pocket, which is real upsetting because we would be basically cleaning up what previous tenants left behind considering we just moved in.”
She said her kids can’t use the upstairs bathroom by their room because there’s no fan, windows or other ventilation. “We tried using it, but the humidity buildup makes it hard to breathe and the mold keeps coming back no matter how many times we try to clean it up.”
The same resident reported her oven stopped working on Thanksgiving Day after two previous repair calls, but couldn’t get it repaired because it wasn’t considered a priority and the technician told them they could cook their dinner over the open flame of the gas burner. The spouse also cited separate incidents when she and her husband fell into open manholes because lawn crews had destroyed the covers and they were not replaced.
“Another issue is our countertop that a previous tenant apparently used as a chopping block because it’s all tore up,” the resident said. “Housing refused to fix it because they considered it cosmetic, but it’s not because it’s unsanitary and we can’t use it. It’s just bad.”
The assembled residents reported loose fitting doors and other air intrusion issues – in one instance, having to run a stove hood fan around the clock to keep the cold air blowing outward. Energy bills ranging as high as $300 to $400 were mentioned often, and McBride made note of the Army’s request for RCI to suspend the Energy Conservation Program that incurs penalties for excessive power usage until further notice.
Backyard fencing was discussed, with residents objecting to a costly rental fee of $600 from a third-party vendor to have a poorly constructed temporary fence installed. Hunt representatives agreed to look at that process to ensure it was fair and not price gouging residents. They also agreed to conduct an assessment to determine interest in universal backyard fencing.
Neighborhoods with insufficient driveway space, requiring residents to park along the street, are reportedly not getting regular mail service because carriers can’t reach the box from their vehicle. The deputy to the garrison commander took on that task, saying he would call the postmaster to discuss a solution.
Residents sought clarification about start-of-lease pet fees and departure penalty fees for damage. Observing that money is being paid to correct damage during occupancy, but new tenants are finding damage, like a cutup countertop, left by their predecessor, the attendees wondered if the money was simply being pocketed. It was reported the following day that the Army RCI partners agreed to suspend non-refundable pet fees out of fairness.
While a great deal more was discussed at the meeting, including several reports of unprofessional conduct by maintenance workers and uphill fights to get problems resolved, much of it reverted back to the same key issues of mold, wet and damaged carpets, dirty ventilation systems and inadequate responses when repair work was requested.
The notion of improving base housing conditions was not lost among the attendees either. One recommended a newcomers orientation coinciding with the signing of a lease agreement, “keeping in mind a lot of people coming here may not be familiar with the problems of humidity in Virginia or may be moving into a home of their own for the first time.” Both the command team and Hunt representatives acknowledged the value of the idea and agreed to pursue it.
As the session drew to a close, Grewatz assured the audience their voices will be heard.
“You do have the commitment and the ear of Army leaders,” he said. “I believe the housing situation is going to get better because of events like this and brave individuals like you who have stuck with this tonight to ensure we understand the full scope of this issue.”
“I don’t know if I can thank you enough for the feedback you’ve given us tonight,” Martin acknowledged. “I know it takes a lot of courage to come here and it was at the cost of time with your family and rushing here from work without dinner for some of you. I applaud you because you want to see this fixed, and I get that. What you have said will make a difference.”
An email statement from the Army housing partner read as follows: “Recognizing the importance of serving those who serve and sacrifice so much for our country, Hunt and Fort Lee Family Housing takes these matters extremely seriously, holds itself accountable and is committed to continuing to make necessary improvements to offer every resident high-quality housing. We are aware of the concerns and are working diligently with our local team members in tandem with our Army partners as well as Hunt Corporate staff, who will walk each of the homes mentioned at last evening’s town hall, to address concerns as quickly as possible.”
Post housing residents are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the following website: home.army.mil/lee/index.php/housing. It will be used for progress updates, to disseminate educational materials, and as a feedback conduit to installation leaders.