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  1. Military

Air Force secretary wants to restore trust lost by airmen and families over housing problems

After touring MacDill Air Force Base’s privately-run housing units on recently, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson spoke to the members of military families about their complaints of mold, rodent infestation, poor construction and the poor response from housing operators. [Courtesy of Traci Lenz]
After touring MacDill Air Force Base’s privately-run housing units on recently, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson spoke to the members of military families about their complaints of mold, rodent infestation, poor construction and the poor response from housing operators. [Courtesy of Traci Lenz]
Published Mar. 7, 2019

The Air Force has lost trust among its airmen and must work to restore it in the wake of mold and other problems with family housing at places like MacDill Air Force Base, the service's secretary told a Senate panel Thursday morning.

The first step, Secretary Heather Wilson told an Armed Services Committee hearing, will be to send out a clear message to base commanders — among them, Air Force Col. Steve Snelson of MacDill — about what is expected of them.

"You rebuild trust by doing what you say you will do and being responsible and holding people accountable," Wilson said.

About a dozen families have complained to the Tampa Bay Times about mold, leaks, shoddy construction and a poor response from housing management officials. Many have reported health problems they believe are a result of exposure to mold.

Wilson, who testified Thursday along with the the Army and Navy secretaries and the four members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listed several ways the Air Force plans on addressing the problem. Wilson visited MacDill last week in the wake of Times reports about housing problems there and at two other bases but did not specifically address individual bases Thursday.

Base commanders need more power to impose penalties on private family housing companies and more help inspecting homes on base, she said.

Contracts with the private companies managing base housing include performance incentive fees. Wilson told the panel the commanders need "more input on performance fees, and more support when it comes to quality control in their own housing offices."

At MacDill, the commander can influence 5 percent of performance fees, according to Air Force Capt. Samantha Morrison, a spokeswoman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the base host unit.

"That is not sufficient," Wilson said, referring to all bases with privatized housing.

Along with the other service secretaries and the joint chiefs, Wilson said a 12-point "Tenant Bill of Rights" released Wednesday will help ensure the housing problems are property addressed.

The document is designed to "ensure service members and their families have safe, quality homes and communities, and clear rights while living in them," according to a Pentagon statement.

The goal, according to the statement, is to increase the accountability of companies running private housing by putting more oversight authority into the hands of local military leaders.

Among other things, it would create a housing advocate selected by base commanders to advise and support tenants; appoint a third-party arbitrator to decide landlord-tenant disputes; and allow tenants to place rent payments in escrow pending a decision by the arbitrator. Those decisions could also result in refunds.

The document also would codify the right of base residents to raise concerns about their housing without fear of retaliation.

Last week, during a visit to MacDill, Wilson asked base command staff to leave a listening session after one resident raised concerns about retaliation. The issue was raised again Thursday during the Senate hearing, with all seven witnesses saying there was a "zero tolerance" policy regarding retaliation.

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Asked Thursday whether retaliation came up during her base visits, Wilson said she was not aware of any involving base commanders.

That assessment left one woman who attended the MacDill meeting confused after she witnessed another attendee raise concerns over retaliation.

"I'm confused why Wilson would say she's never heard of command retaliation on any base considering what happened during the listening session at MacDill," said Amie Norquist, wife of an Army officer at MacDill and mother of four who is one of more than a dozen people who told the Times about health problems suffered as a result of exposure to mold. "I have lost all faith in the Department of Defense at this point."

Norquist and other family members also have complained that housing management officials are slow to respond to complaints or ignore them altogether, forcing families to move out of base housing at a cost of thousands of dollars.

The tenant bill of rights "is a step in the right direction," Norquist said.

One provision of the bill of rights would give tenants more time to inspect homes before moving in. Norquist suggested taking that a step further.

"I believe as soon as a future resident is designated for occupancy they have a right to review the work order history before arriving to the base," Norquist said. "This will allow them an informed decision as to whether or not that particular home will be a good fit for their family. I would never have moved my family on base if I knew it had mold or water damage."

During the Senate hearing, Wilson acknowledged that the Air Force only checks about 10 percent of homes turned over from one family to another.

Trarci Lenz, wife of an Air Force non-commissioned officer and mother of three whose family has health issues they believe is related to the mold, raised concerns about whether the bill of right's provisions for third-party arbiters would lead to conflicts of interest, but like Norquist said it was a positive move overall.

"The proposal makes me hopeful that better days and safer housing are on the horizon for the generations to follow," she said.

The bill of rights would be enforced through renegotiated leases with the private housing companies that manage about 99 percent of all base family housing.

Wilson and the others testifying Thursday said they would seek input from families like Norquist, and the backing of Congress, in establishing the bill of rights. It was expected to be approved within about 90 days.

At MacDill , 527 units of base housing have been operated by Harbor Bay at MacDill since 2007. It is a partnership between Clarke Realty Builders and Michaels Management Services, which oversees the housing management at MacDill.

"Anything that improves communication with residents helps," Ronald Hansen, president of Michaels Management Services, said in a statement to the Times. "The draft bill of rights that we have seen are common sense for most."

Hansen added that the "discussions occurring now may have been overdue. I think overall the discussions will lead to a better system that continues to meet goals of providing a good experience to each resident."

Across the Air Force, base commanders visited nearly 10,000 homes as part of the review process mandated by Wilson and Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force Chief of Staff. Of those, 25 percent had mold and moisture issues, 13 percent showed evidence of vermin, 5 percent had chipped or flaking paint and 71 percent had other maintenance concerns.

Mold was a common concern due to construction quality, according to the review. The homes experienced moisture from rain, flooding and leaks from air conditioning and refrigerators. In addition, residents said maintenance personnel were unlicensed, unprofessional, extremely slow to respond, used fear tactics and were intimidating and condescending.

The report, provided by the Air Force, did not break out the numbers by base, but officials at MacDill found similar issues, said Morrison, the 6th Air Mobility Wing spokeswoman.

"MacDill-specific inspection results aligned with the Air Force results in regards to mold being the number one issue due to construction-quality moisture from rain, flooding and leaks from HVAC and refrigerators," she said.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112 . Follow @haltman.

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