From “rodent droppings” to lead poisoning, military housing is making headlines for the worst reasons. As army leadership and elected officials work to rebuild trust, HappyCo uncovers maintenance pain points and operator possibilities.
When military spouse Leslie Tumlinson woke up one night to the sound of her two-year-old daughter crying, she didn’t expect to see this: “I walked over to the hallway and I flipped the switch up in the hallway and there were just tons of mice just running down my hallway. You could see them coming out of the rooms, just scampering down the halls.”
With her husband deployed in the Marines at the time, Tumlinson and her four young children left their on-base rental home that night to sleep at their grandmother’s. The next morning, Tumlinson found her house “covered in mouse, rodent droppings, urine.” An exterminator and maintenance crew arrived to help, but the mice problem kept coming back through the hot summer of 2017.
KPBS chronicles the unusual bind Tumlinson faced next as an on-base military mom. While she’d taken plenty of alarming photos and had even “kept the contents of the vacuum” from that night, Tumlinson was told there were no other rentals available at Camp Pendleton. The local health department, meanwhile, said they “couldn’t help her because she was living on base.” Tumlinson felt she had no other option but to plead her case on social media. The tactic proved successful; her family was soon moved to a “newer home on another part of the base.”
While Tumlinson’s mouse infestation is a shock to the system, her family is actually among thousands of military families now in the spotlight after facing unsafe housing conditions, ineffective maintenance responses, and, worst of all, limited options to move anywhere else. Following significant media exposure, the military is now working to rebuild trust, with General Mark Milley conceding: “We owe our Soldiers and their Families safe, high-quality housing. That did not happen in a troubling number of cases and that is unacceptable. We have to do better, and we will.”
Before covering the military’s efforts, HappyCo explores the history of army housing privatization, key concerns among on-base residents, and the profound possibilities for multifamily operators to bring transparency to a broken system.
The roots of privatization? A push to improve military housing.
By way of background, the Department of Defense decided to privatize military housing in 1996 in a push to “improve housing conditions,” according to CNBC. Reuters notes that “about 30 percent of service families — including some 100,000 small children — live in U.S. military housing owned and operated by private companies in business with the military.” However, The News Tribune hints at a rather lopsided power dynamic: “Under long-term contracts, companies profit from maintaining, managing and renting to military tenants who in turn forfeit their monthly Basic Allowance for Housing.”
A recent Yahoo! Finance piece suggests these on-base housing properties certainly seem appealing from the outside, noting: “as bases grew into vast, permanent institutions across the U.S. their housing options grew with them. For decades bases have offered houses and condominium-style homes that would fit into any suburban neighborhood.”
Yahoo! Finance reveals that “generally speaking, the DoD [Department of Defense] gives higher priority to married personnel and those with families.” The author also makes clear that “some bases remain intensely competitive with waiting lists for incoming personnel.” Meanwhile, a military family member interviewed by CNBC implies there’s a common trait among many renting on-base housing: “young families who might be afraid to question authority or don’t understand… potential adverse health effects.” Against this backdrop of limited rentals and hesitant renters, Reuters reports on a truly unsettling trend: depending on their source, on-base housing surveys painted significantly different pictures of resident satisfaction.
Conflicting surveys: uncovering the resident experience.
According to a May 2019 Reuters piece, a non-profit called Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) conducted a survey “built from responses by 15,000 families living in 46 states and 158 bases.” As Reuters reports, “in all, 55% of families who responded gave a negative view of their base housing. Just 16% gave positive marks, with the rest neutral.”
Needless to say, these numbers would be unnerving enough in isolation. Context, however, makes them even more sobering, as “the survey results stand in stark contrast to those reported by private military housing operators, who annually poll a subset of their residents and release results that often list satisfaction rates above 90%.”
It would be comforting to imagine this renter dissatisfaction stems from overgrown weeds or broken dryers. Unfortunately, resident complaints revolved around serious health concerns much of the time, resulting in: “6,629 reports of housing-related health problems, 3,342 of mold, 1,564 of pest infestations and 46 of carbon monoxide leaks.”
The survey discrepancies prove especially bleak when broken down at a military base level. Reuters highlights the profound data disparity at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, where a survey commissioned by the site’s housing contractor indicated “90 to 94% of residents were satisfied with housing in 2016.” When the Military Family Advisory Network surveyed residents at the same base, however, it found that just “15% held a positive view.” To understand the stakes, here’s what families at Kirtland disclosed to MFAN: “43 reports of mold, 24 of vermin infestations and 4 carbon monoxide leaks.”
Amidst in-depth housing surveys like MFAN’s and pressure from politicians and the media, the military is now showing a strong interest in open dialogue with on-base families. Earlier this year, Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark Esper stressed: “We want to hear firsthand from our Soldiers and their families about the extent of the problem and what needs to be done to correct it.”
Still, it’s valuable to understand a critical barrier to this request for feedback — that some military families feel their maintenance complaints have either been ignored or mishandled over lengthy periods. To understand the long road toward rebuilding trust in military housing, multifamily operators would benefit from hearing a few of these families’ stories.
Complaints going nowhere — understanding renter frustration.
To set the stage, The News Tribune paints a picture of on-base military renters’ overall discontent: “increasingly dissatisfied military families say maintenance problems and health hazards from leaky roofs or pipes, dangerous mold, problem-plagued heating or air conditioning systems, high radon readings or infestations of bugs and rodents have gone unaddressed or resulted in only temporary fixes to await new renters.”
Lance and Megan Konzen had none of this on their radar when they moved into on-base housing at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas. As CNBC reports, the couple was encouraged to move there by Air Force staff, as a way “to help them adjust to military life.” Unfortunately, their new rental “had mold growing in the vents, which gave Megan respiratory problems and led to several emergency room visits.”
The Konzens say the company managing their home should have done preventative maintenance, and that it failed to “clean the home thoroughly once mold was discovered.” Now, as CNBC reports, the Konzens are “one of several families highlighted in a report from the Military Family Advisory Network.”
Meanwhile, CBS News shares the story of Paige and Nick Ippolito, who “met while serving in the Navy at Tinker Air Force Base back in 2015.” Upon moving in to a rental at their base, the couple said “the house was a mess to begin with” and the “floor downstairs was destroyed completely.” Yet, it was the presence of a leak that sparked a far bigger problem. According to CBS News, it caused a maintenance technician “to document his concern that the couple’s infant daughter could become sick from chewing on flooring tiles that contained asbestos.”
However, the couple says neither the technician nor the company informed them about this safety hazard at the time. To Nick, this was “almost heartbreaking,” as “we already risk our lives everyday, you know, you think you’ve got your family home safe.” Unfortunately, their experiences support a key finding from a Military Family Advisory Network report that notes: “We heard from multiple families that their concerns were downplayed. Many were told that mold was dirt or that nothing could be done about visibly growing mold on windowsills, walls, and ceilings.”
On the other hand, reports of widespread toxic lead risks at outdated military housing sites proved too grave a problem to ignore, according to Reuters. The news agency published an investigation in August 2018 “describing lead paint poisoning hazards in privatized military base homes,” and documenting “at least 1,050 small children who tested high for lead at base clinics in recent years.” Reuters notes the consequences could be profound: “ingesting the heavy metal can stunt brain development and cause lifelong health impacts.”
Following the startling results, “eight U.S. senators demanding action,” and the military drafted an inspection program targeting 40,000 homes built before “a 1978 U.S. ban on the sale of lead paint,” according to Reuters. However, the military may need to do more than inspections to rebuild trust with residents on the affected bases, as Reuters reports the alarming lead test results for small children “often weren’t being reported to state health authorities as required.”
With news agencies and politicians shedding light on these kinds of health hazards, on-base military residents have better odds than ever of gaining clean, safe housing conditions. However, as multifamily operators gauge just how they can bring positive change to this troubled arena, it’s important for them to understand: why haven’t on-base residents been moving out in droves?
Stuck, but unsatisfied: why many residents remain on-base.
In many cases, affordability is a key barrier for military families hoping to abandon their on-base rental. Despite facing significant health scares from mold in her home, Megan Konzen admitted to Reuters: “We can’t afford to move off base. We are stuck.” Yet, cost isn’t always the main concern when on-base military families consider their housing options.
Sometimes, there are simply no other housing options. In speaking with CNBC, Konzen elaborated on her situation: “There’s really no place to live…I can’t go live in the next town over, there is no next town over.” Indeed, the couple lives on a base in Del Rio, Texas, a remote town of “about 36,000 people.” Thus, the Konzens are getting crafty; CNBC reports they are looking for a trailer to live on-base — minus the on-base housing. As Megan Konzen puts it, “that’s kind of what we’re left with.”
In other cases, the nature of the military lifestyle spurs a quick decision and the desire to feel part of a community. Military Family Advisory Network Executive Director Shannon Razsadin argues: “Because military families move so frequently, sometimes on very short notice, we often don’t have the time to check out housing before we go and move to a place.” Upon arrival, the sense of camaraderie on-base housing offers can be tough to relinquish. As Razsadin puts it: “Families rely on military housing as a safe option with very little commute and the community that is inherent with living on a base.”
Additionally, CNBC reports that some military families on the younger end of the spectrum are fearful housing complaints will translate to career problems. Writer Marilyn Haigh quotes a passage from the MFAN survey in which military personnel “described excessive fees when they moved out of housing, and some said they feared retribution for reporting their concerns.”
Whether they’re burdened by high costs, minimal options, or career concerns, on-base military residents often make the tough call to remain where they are. Fortunately, multifamily operators have a powerful opportunity to enter the equation and spark positive change.
A ripe time for change: tips for multifamily operators.
While long-term contracts have dominated the military housing scene since the early days of privatization, Reuters reports on a significant sea change. Following the news agency’s alarming August 2018 lead investigation, military officials have “pledged to hire hundreds of new housing staff and have moved to negotiate the 50-year contracts held by private real estate firms.” Thus, the time is ripe for multifamily operators to learn from others’ misdeeds and chart a new course for on-base housing.
Efficient operations and company transparency will be especially prized should efforts like this succeed: a bill proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren to “require the Department of Defense and its private housing operators to publish reports annually detailing housing conditions, tenant complaints, maintenance response times and the financial incentives companies receive at each base.”
For multifamily operators, maintaining open dialogue with military residents will be especially important, with the communication standard set higher than ever. KPBS notes: “Congress is now debating a tenant’s bill of rights. Among other things, it would give base commanders the ability to withhold rents until the private contractor resolves an issue.” Safety risks could also soon spell financial downsides for real estate companies, as Senator Warren’s proposed bill: “would also require private landlords to cover moving costs for at-risk families, and healthcare costs for people with medical conditions resulting from unsafe base housing.”
In this new era of military housing, multifamily teams will need to be comfortable engaging with residents through a range of channels. After all, some army officials claim “a communication disconnect” allowed some long-standing maintenance problems to go under the radar. The News Tribune breaks down the dynamic: while some families expressed their housing concerns on social media, “more senior folks” working for the military or with private contractors weren’t always hearing their cries, as they typically “expect frustrated families to reach out in face-to-face meetings or at physical townhall meetings.”
Finally, multifamily companies entering the military housing scene will need to be conscious of the mistrust that’s been brewing for many years among some on-base families. Ironically, these operators would benefit from the army’s own approach to messaging. Reuters notes how the military’s proposed strategy to handle toxic lead reports entails town hall meetings. The army’s meeting minutes on the subject stress that these events should be conducted with “‘empathy’” as “‘Tone is key and can be just as important as the actions we take.’”
Clearly, the time is ripe for change in military housing. By understanding its complicated history and evolving standards, multifamily operators are uniquely positioned to rebuild trust in a troubled industry. They’re also set to benefit from the growing media attention and increasing political pressure the military faces. All eyes are now looking for a new cast of trusted multifamily operators, companies who can make two firm commitments: effective maintenance responses and a culture of transparency.
Glennis is a writer/producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, she worked at CBS San Francisco as a program coordinator, public affairs producer, and ultimately full-time news writer for the KPIX 5 Morning News. She’s excited to enter the bustling startup world and tell HappyCo’s stories across channels.