MacDill Air Force base families who say they've suffered health problems after living in private on-base housing had their say before Congress this week. Two women came out of the meetings hopeful the federal government will address concerns about military families living in mold-infested, substandard structures — but still fear the problems won't get fixed.
"The past few days were amazing and felt like such a huge step in the right direction for our military families," said Amie Norquist, 31, a mother of four and wife of an Army officer.
She and Traci Lenz, a 34-year-old mother of three and wife of an Air Force non-commissioned officer, both attended a Wednesday hearing of a Senate Armed Services Committee subcommittee on the nationwide problems besetting base housing, 99 percent of which is owned and managed by private companies.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Combat veteran on mold problem: 'MacDill was the worst place I ever lived.'
Norquist also testified Thursday during a closed-door roundtable meeting of a House Armed Services Committee subcommittee on the problem.
At least 16 families have come forward with concerns about mold and other housing problems at MacDill. The number of families affected is likely much higher, Norquist said, but many are still afraid to come forward for fear it could affect their military careers.
In interviews with the Tampa Bay Times and in statements made at a base meeting in October, families have spoken out about poor living conditions and health problems caused by mold. Yet they were still charged thousands of dollars in penalties for breaking leases because housing operator Harbor Bay at MacDill failed to respond to their concerns, or to do so in a timely manner. The management firm operates 527 housing units on base. Several local politicians have since weighed in on the issue after the Times first reported on the base's housing issues.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: MacDill penalizes base housing operator over mold as Bilirakis launches congressional inquiry
During the Senate hearing, military families called for the creation of a tenants' "bill of rights" that would allow military families to withhold rent payments in an escrow account if they believe they are living in unsafe conditions, get rebates for slow responses to address their concerns and create an independent third-party to resolve all disputes.
"I believe a bill of rights should have been in place long ago," Lenz said. "Like many others, we did not realize how limited our recourse would be with a privatized home or we would have chosen differently.
"Being able to place (housing allowance) into an escrow is a very appealing option for me because it holds privatized housing companies accountable without tenants falling back on rent and gives families an easily accessible and effective recourse."
The concept earned praise from Assistant Air Force Secretary John Henderson, one of four military officials who testified before the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Wednesday.
"The resident should have the choice of whether they pay their rent or not if they feel their landlord isn't giving them a healthy and safe place to live," he testified. "That makes the landlord responsive financially to the resident."
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Two local House Republicans, U.S. Rep Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, have launched Congressional inquiries into MacDill's housing problems. Base officials have also penalized Harbor Bay by withholding some incentive fees. Henderson added that the Air Force should have the discretion to withhold all incentive fees from companies that fail to provide safe housing.
That would be "a little bit bigger hammer inside the partnerships to influence that behavior," Henderson said.
MacDill base housing has 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.
Company president Ron Hansen declined to talk about specific complaints to the Times, but said his firm's goal was to make tenants happy. But he acknowledged there are problems.
"As you listen to the residents' perspective on things, you get the feeling that in some cases we did fail," Hansen said. He added that company has brought in more mold and moisture experts to improve service.
He said he supports the idea of a third-party mediating disputes, but suggested base officials already do so. He also said the idea of withholding rent might be cumbersome because of the way the system works — and that withholding incentive fees is impractical because it is based on many factors.
Company vice president Sherri Farris said that in the past two years, Harbor Bay has received nearly 4,000 requests for service.
About 2 percent of those, around three dozen or so a year, have dealt with mold and moisture issues.
U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida toured the base on Monday. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, had her representatives visit on Thursday. She grew more concerned about base housing after speaking to Lenz and another military family whom she did not identify.
"I am very concerned so many of the houses have mold and other construction issues so soon after they were built," Castor said.
MacDill's base commander, Air Force Col. Steve Snelson, told the Times he has made it clear to all families that they should feel free to come forward with their concerns without fear of reprisal. He sent out another reminder of that to base personnel Thursday evening.
But Castor, who also supports a tenants' bill of rights for military families, said that after listening to the Senate testimony and talking with Lenz, she believes families are still afraid of doing that.
"We can't have that," she said. "Military families deserve the best housing available."
Contact Howard Altman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3112 . Follow @haltman.