A new watchdog report from the Army found that privatized family housing at nearly 50 bases, including Fort Jackson in Columbia, cited concerns from residents such as lead-based paint, retaliation from housing companies and overpriced rent.
And the majority of military families surveyed, 64 percent of them, said they would move off base if they had the money to do so. At some remote or high-cost locations, some residents complained about using their Basic Allowance For Housing, often referred to as a BAH, on overpriced homes.
"The amount we pay for these tiny houses is way two expensive," Amanda Spurr, a two-year resident and Army spouse at Fort Jackson, told The Post and Courier. "Especially, because they are so poorly built."
The report from the inspector general of the Army that identified issues at Fort Jackson and other Army bases across the nation comes after The Post and Courier reported on wide-ranging military housing issues at the major military installations in the Palmetto State.
Three companies are responsible for all the private housing at Joint Base Charleston, Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, Shaw Air Force Base as well as Fort Jackson. Those housing providers are Texas-based Hunt Companies, Boston-headquartered WinnCompanies and Pennsylvania-anchored Balfour Beatty Communities.
Balfour Beatty is responsible for housing at Fort Jackson. The inspector general's report, which was made public at the beginning of the month, draws from 116 sessions with housing residents, 1,180 resident surveys, 1,023 document reviews and 227 interviews with garrison commanders and housing personnel. The report is sweeping, and does not detail specific complaints exclusively from Fort Jackson, but lumps complaints from all bases together.
At 48 of the 49 Army installations surveyed by the inspector general, residents in privatized housing cited concerns with issues, including mold, lead-based paint, asbestos, water quality, open sewage and radon gas, the report states.
The private housing company has made numerous changes at Fort Jackson such as adding a quality control specialist, a resident engagement specialist and a new regional facility manager to address the issues.
"Our team has developed a targeted action plan to address the specific issues raised at Fort Jackson," Lauren Sambrotto a spokeswoman for Balfour Beatty Communities said in a statement. "In the last few months, we have taken a number of steps to address the areas where the Army IG report indicates there’s room for improvement, including training our people on best practices and hiring more maintenance and quality control experts.”
A May report from the Military Family Advisory Network surveyed nearly 17,000 current and former military members who had lived in on-base housing showed that nearly 60 percent of complaints at Fort Jackson were related to "maintenance, repairs, or remediation."
In 1996, the military shifted ownership of more than 200,000 family housing units on bases to private real estate developers and property managers under 50-year contracts. Now, 99 percent of domestic military housing is privatized.
But the inspector general's report states that at 92 percent of the Army base sites visited, there were no published quality assurance procedures for ensuring the work done by the property managers was timely or efficient, the report states.
"Personally, I've just stopped calling maintenance because they just won't respond in a timely manner," Spurr said.
Christin Streagle, another Fort Jackson spouse, has had issues with her stove fan, HVAC and had her garage door unhinged in her two years on base. Many of her problems, she said, were not fixed in a timely manner.
When the private companies fall short, service members often turn to an on-base housing board to represent their interests.
But at 82 percent of locations, most residents did not know their government housing representative and many "did not know this position exists," the inspector general's report states.
And those who do know where to go to report complaints are often afraid to do so. Some residents surveyed for the report said examples included "additional move-out fees, fines due to yard maintenance or other discrepancies, and threats to call or involve the chain of command in various issues" shortly after filing a negative complaint.
The Army has a zero-tolerance policy regarding retaliation.
Patrick Jones, a spokesman for Fort Jackson, said a survey conducted by the base earlier this year was revealing.
Fort Jackson had an overall resident satisfaction of their privatized housing of 70.1 percent, a property satisfaction rate of 72.7 percent and a service rating was 68.2 percent. To curb the low satisfaction rates, Fort Jackson leadership has taken steps such as increasing town hall meetings with residents and increased meetings with Balfour Beatty officials.
"We are absolutely committed to providing safe and secure housing on every installation," said Gen. Gus Perna, Army Materiel Command commander. "We are taking action to earn back the trust of our housing residents, and holding ourselves and privatized housing companies accountable to provide a high-quality standard of living."
Earlier this year, top military leaders discussed the potential for a bill of rights that would allow service members to withhold rent through a neutral party when problems are not addressed and establish effective communication between contractors and tenants. Senate and House versions of the National Defense Authorization Act list several improvements for private housing. An agreement on the final version of the bill is expected this month.
Shannon Razsadin, a Navy spouse and executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, said the inspector general's report was an important development.
“It’s a big step forward and, ultimately, it’s validating to the families who spoke out to us,” Razsadin said. “This report is another tool for families as policy changes move forward.”
Razsadin saw the report as the Army's acknowledgement of the tough living conditions so many families had accepted as their everyday reality.