America asks enough of its military families. It shouldn't ask that they live in fear of being housed in unhealthy environments. The recounting of mold problems in military housing by several families at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa shows that Congress and the Department of Defense need a tighter rein on private housing contractors.
A story this week by the Tampa Bay Times’ Howard Altman cast a local light on a national problem. Amie Norquist and her family moved to MacDill in July thinking they had found their ideal home. The military spouse and mother of four liked the convenience and the access to local neighborhoods without having to face the burden of South Tampa housing prices. But within a month, her children started getting sick. Breathing problems sent her youngest to the emergency room, her 3-year-old came down with pneumonia, and another child’s existing health problems grew worse. Norquist suspected mold. She asked Harbor Bay, the company that manages base properties, to check. Her fears were confirmed.
But for Norquist, 31, and for families like hers at bases nationwide, identifying the problem was just the beginning. She found limited recourse, in part, because the military contracts out 99 percent of housing on its bases to private firms, according to a report in March from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. At least seven other families living in base housing have complained about mold, judging from a MacDill town hall meeting in October and interviews with the Tampa Bay Times. Norquist said even more families have reached out to her through email and social media.
The parent company of Tampa-based Harbor Bay said in a statement that mold problems pointed out by the Times have met with “a successful resolution.” A company executive noted that mold is a common issue in warm, humid environments such as in Tampa Bay. The company said that it inspects housing routinely, and provides alternative housing at no cost to residents who must be temporarily relocated for repairs. But Norquist maintains her family incurred thousands of dollars in debt as they set up a new home in Riverview and worked to replace contaminated furniture. Several other military spouses who spoke to the Times complained about mold problems at MacDill; one said she was satisfied with Harbor Bay’s response to her complaint.
MacDill’s host command showed its displeasure with Harbor Bay’s performance last year by cutting the money the company receives through a performance incentive fee. The problem also has gotten the attention of U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the Palm Harbor Republican who wrote a letter Jan. 25 to Air Force Col. Steve Snelson, the base commander. Bilirakis wants to know the extent of the problem and how MacDill has dealt with it. Col. Snelson told the Times that cutting Harbor Bay in its performance incentive money was “one way we as the installation host can provide feedback on the base housing project performance.”
But it shouldn't be this difficult for military families. Those in base housing face a unique challenge; the government doesn't want to manage the housing itself, but military families — unlike civilians — cannot place their payments into escrow when problems arise, because the management companies are paid directly through the allowances given to service members. What’s more, base commanders are limited in how they can intercede with private businesses. That leaves military families on their own.
Congress needs to examine the performance of these providers, and the Pentagon needs to give base commanders more authority to intervene when housing standards fall short. Service members should not have to choose between living in a potentially unsafe environment and being stretched financially. National service works two ways — and it’s time Congress sided more with military families who want nothing but safer housing and more accountability from those who provide it.