WASHINGTON D.C. — On military bases around the country, the experiences are frustratingly similar for families living in homes that are run by private housing companies.
Unsafe living conditions like mold, bug infestations and structural problems cast a shadow over their daily lives, while leading to health concerns for these military families.
Raven Roman was living in on-base housing at Fort Belvoir in Virginia with her three daughters and husband in 2018 when they first started experiencing housing problems.
“The mattresses that we were sleeping on had ants crawling on them,” Roman said. “My daughter’s chair was swarmed with ants.”
Roman said they worried about the health impact from the mold most of all.
She provided us with records from 2019 when she got testing done at the home that found the presence of water damage molds.
“The health concerns for my family had become so severe that we ended up moving my family from the home that we were living in to a hotel,” Roman said.
Her husband is now retired from the U.S. Army after serving in five deployments over his 20-year career, according to Roman.
“It’s a slap in the face to the service member that nothing is being done,” Roman said. “It’s affecting their readiness.”
We told you about other families who have also faced housing problems while living at Fort Belvoir.
A spokesperson for the Michaels Organization, which operates homes on Fort Belvoir, declined to comment about concerns raised by Roman and other military spouses we spoke with last month who all said they endured housing problems at Fort Belvoir.
Roman’s personal experience with unsafe living conditions on-base inspired her to become a co-founder of the nonprofit group National Military Housing Advocates, which was formed in 2019.
They volunteer their time to help other military families like them navigate the process of flagging housing problems and getting it fixed.
“This is a systemic issue,” Roman said.
We caught up with members of the nonprofit who traveled to Capitol Hill to speak directly with lawmakers and their staffers about their concerns.
“We have lived in three back-to-back duty stations and each house that we have lived in on base housing has had some form of mold problems,” Alacia Camechis, who is a military spouse and a veteran, said.
Her husband is in the Navy, and she is a Navy veteran.
Camechis said her family has experienced housing problems at homes on Naval Submarine Base New London in Connecticut, Fort Belvoir, and Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia.
They have four children, including a son with autism, and Camechis said she worries for her kids’ health and safety the most.
“My kids would wake up with rashes all over their body,” Camechis said. “It was like we were just never ever healthy living there.”
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Naval Submarine Base New London and Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay are both run by Balfour Beatty Communities, which operates more than 43,000 on-base homes in 26 states.
In response to Camechis’ concerns about the Kings Bay home, a spokesperson for Balfour Beatty Communities said: “We are surprised by Mrs. Camechis’ complaints… Before the Camechis moved into their home at Kings Bay they expressed concern about the HVAC system. Based on its age, we decided to replace the entire system before the family moved in, which they did in January 2023. Since then they have placed a series of work orders, all related to routine repairs and cosmetic issues like gutter clearing, exterior pressure washing, bathroom recaulking, paint touch ups, and screen door repairs. Our maintenance team has been working diligently to complete the work… We take the health and safety of our residents very seriously and would be happy to speak with the family to better understand their concerns.”
Camechis, meanwhile, points out that the HVAC was replaced after her family raised maintenance concerns about it.
Correspondence with the housing company confirms the Camechis family was placed in a hotel temporarily after initially signing the lease because of the HVAC issue and other housing problems they raised.
Camechis also provided correspondence with the housing company about her Kings Bay home detailing at least 25 housing problems that were reported for fixes including deteriorating and crumbling kitchen cabinets, repairs for the HVAC, and cracks on the stairwell ceiling among other issues.
Emails show some of these needed repairs were still not completed as of April, around four months after they moved into the home.
As for the concerns at the home in New London, Balfour Beatty Communities said there was one work order related to mold, which was in an exterior storage shed.
We told you how Balfour Beatty Communities was at the center of a bipartisan Senate investigation last year led by Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) that uncovered widespread housing complaints against the company.
“If we keep incentivizing housing companies for poor houses, for no maintenance, for all these things, we’re going to keep losing military members,” Stephanie Graham, another member of the military housing advocacy group, said.
Graham’s husband is now retired from the Navy, but they previously lived in on-base housing at Andrews Air Force Base and Fort Belvoir.
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Graham told our Washington News Bureau her daughter experienced health issues after repeated problems with mold at their housing.
“Nose bleeds, allergic pink eye,” Graham said. “We were both in the hospital with upper respiratory infections. It was really devastating.”
A spokesperson for the Michaels Organization, which also runs housing at Andrews Air Force base, declined to comment.
Lauren Catoe has had similar health concerns for her three kids.
Catoe, whose husband is in the Army, said her family experienced moldy homes on Fort Meade and Fort Belvoir.
“It’s extremely scary and it breaks your heart,” Catoe said. “It’s not something anybody should have to go through especially a military member who is fighting for our country and giving their life for our country, and we can’t even give them a safe house to live in?”
We reached out to the housing company for Fort Meade about these housing concerns but have not yet heard back.
The team of military spouses came to Washington D.C. armed with data they collected to show Congressional staffers a paper trail of housing problems and health concerns from a survey of military families.
The military housing advocates showed staffers photos of mold, drainage problems and maintenance reports among other findings.
“We’re calling out for help,” Roman said. “We are documenting families who are in displacement suites. Their children are sick.”
Their meetings included one with staff members for Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Service members and their families have been living in substandard conditions for too long,” Blumenthal told our Washington News Bureau in a statement about their concerns. “I’ve heard alarming accounts that housing communities at several military bases are riddled with mold, construction flaws, and plumbing issues. Meanwhile, some privatized military housing companies force tenants to sign non-disclosure agreements, leaving them with no mechanism for recourse. We have an obligation to provide members of our military with safe homes and ensure bad actors are held accountable. I will continue to work with the Department of Defense to ensure these issues are addressed.”
“There should never be a family that moves into a house that has life safety issues,” Catoe said.
We told you how those health concerns are now part of a bipartisan investigation in Congress.
We spoke exclusively with Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) in March about the letter he sent to the Defense Department (DoD) demanding answers about potential links between health problems and these unsafe living conditions.
The letter to the DoD was co-signed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL).
“They’re putting their lives on the line in our national defense,” Ossoff said. “They shouldn’t have to sacrifice a safe, clean healthy home at the same time.”
“I want to make sure we really understand where the housing problems are and what caused them and how we can fix it,” Scott said.
So far, the DoD has not yet provided a response to the letter.
The group of military housing advocates say their goal now is to get accountability and action from the DoD.
They said they want the DoD to pull contracts from the housing companies that won’t fix these repeated issues.
“Pulling the contracts with these particular companies I think will send a message that we’re not playing anymore, and we need to get companies in there that are willing to step up and treat our service members and our families the way they deserve to be treated,” Camechis said.
We told you how we spoke one-on-one with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) who told our Washington News Bureau she wants the contracts pulled too if the problems aren’t fixed.
“If we can’t see a really steep curve in terms of fixing those problems, then I want to talk to the Department of Defense about terminating the contracts,” Warren said in February.
It’s a move these military families say is long overdue.
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“I want the DoD to stand up, put their foot down and protect their soldiers,” Catoe said.