Air Force orders immediate checks of 74K houses after reports of contaminants, rats

The Air Force is ordering a 100 percent review of the condition and safety of all military housing by March 1.

The order comes less than one week after the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing about military-wide instances of black mold, lead paint and pests infesting on-base, privatized housing.

“Our airmen and their families should have military housing that will not adversely impact their health and safety,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein wrote in a Feb. 19 directive to wing commanders. “More importantly, they should have confidence that they can identify problems without retaliation or fear of reprisal. This is about taking care of our people.”

The Air Force plans to conduct in-person safety investigations of 74,500 family housing units over the next ten days. The results will give senior civilian and military leaders a better understanding of the extent and severity of the problems with on-base housing. Investigators will use a standard checklist to ensure consistency.

The Air Force is also asking residents to document any health or safety risks. The directive requires command teams to “solicit feedback from their airmen about any health or safety issues in the housing they occupy.”

The feedback is supposed to address the issue of retaliation. During the Feb. 13 hearing, military families reported facing retaliation from commanding officers for complaining about the condition of their housing.

The directive asks the Air Force Inspector General to review how the Air Force responds to complaints about housing. On Monday, Reuters reported the Air Force is at the very early stages exploratory stages of creating a tenant bill of rights.

In addition, the service is conducting a policy review to make sure there are no directives that impede commanders from responding appropriately. The Army also asked its IG to review housing issues within the service.

Lawmakers were appalled after hearing reports of substandard housing among multiple bases last week. The committee called the hearing after Reuters reported instances of lead paint at Ft. Benning, Georgia, which led to high led toxicity in more than 1,100 children.

Military families testifying before the Senate panel described respiratory problems from mold, children with cancer, rats and toxic chemicals in the air and soil of where they lived.

“I’m infuriated by what I’m hearing today. This is disgusting,” said Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who is an Air Force veteran. “There are people I hope look themselves in the mirror tonight. Instead of being partners with our troops to make sure our way of life is kept safe and free, they left military families hanging. They put you in harm’s way. This is so wrong and so angering to many of us.”

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) speaks at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on poor conditions of privatized military housing.

A recent Military Family Advisory Network survey found 55.53 percent of the nearly 17,000 respondents had a negative or very negative experience with privatized military housing. Only about 16 percent responded that they had a positive experience.

The management companies had few excuses for the issues with the housing they provided and managed when they were called before the Senate committee.

“We are at, what I would call, a critical inflection point in where our program is and we know we need to get to the bottom of the challenges that we are facing,” said John Picerne, founder and CEO of the Corvias Group. “We have some new homes and we have some older homes that need major renovations. We’ve had some challenges in dealing with that.”

Picerne said his company receives between $12 million and $14 million a year in profit from military housing. Christopher Williams, who also testified and is president of Balfour Beatty Communities, said his company receives a net profit of $33 million a year from military homes.

The companies said they are changing their policies dealing with mold and mildew and are tapping into hundreds of millions of dollars for the maintenance and repair of homes.

Despite the extra funds and policy changes, lawmakers said there was a larger issue at hand.

“The system is broken,” Senate Armed Services Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said. “These problems were obvious to the military families, but they were not obvious enough to you to take effective corrective action. We have to think collectively, working with the Department of Defense and the service departments, to come up with appropriate incentives and disincentives, so once again you don’t take your eye off the target.”

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