Mold growing overnight on toothpaste caps, infestations of cockroaches — those are just some of the appalling conditions in private housing in Texas provided for U.S. military families.
Now a federal lawsuit is targeting one of the largest companies managing military housing, and an attorney for the plaintiffs contends the examples in the complaint are just the tip of the iceberg.
The lawsuit is shining a spotlight on the debate over the Pentagon’s shift from traditional barracks housing for the troops to a reliance on private contractors to provide living space. Justified as a way to lower costs and improve efficiencies, the shift also leaves military personnel and their families with an uncertain path on where to get justice when things go wrong.
“It’s a litany of horrors. I suspect there are tens of thousands of these [homes.] The pattern I’m seeing is a nightmare,” said Jim Moriarty, a former U.S. Marine and veteran litigator.
The lawsuit, filed in San Antonio, targets El Paso-based Hunt Military Communities, which leases and manages houses to service members at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio and Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Military Housing Privatization Initiative, allowing the Department of Defense to privatize housing on military bases. The initiative was supposed to use the power of the private sector and competition to upgrade housing, but that hasn’t been the case for some service members.
According to court documents, Air Force Capt. Michael J. Daniels and his family moved into on-base housing at Randolph Air Force Base in July 2016.
“The dilapidated, unhealthy and destructive conditions they encountered their first day there continued to plague them until the day the family finally packed up their few uncontaminated personal belongings and left,” the lawsuit states.
In addition to discovering mold on his son’s tube of toothpaste after it was left uncapped overnight, Capt. Daniels learned that the plumbing in the home had failed and that everything flushed down the toilet was likely residing under the house. Within months of moving into the house, the family’s youngest son began to suffer from intermittent asthma.
“Capt. Daniels, too, began to suffer from respiratory issues and had sinus surgery after moving into the house. He became sick every two to three months,” the lawsuit says.
The experience was similar for Capt. Jonathan Kline after he and his family moved into housing at Randolph Air Force Base managed and operated by Hunt Military Communities. According to their attorneys, they noticed problems with the house immediately and the company never fully remedied their complaints.
“They walked into the house for the first time … to find that cockroaches had not just infested, but overran the place,” the lawsuit states.
The foundation was failing, the lawsuit contends, resulting in half-inch cracks throughout the home. According to the lawsuit, the company said they couldn’t afford to repair the foundation. Instead, they “filled the cracks with plaster and called it a day.”
In both cases, the families reached out to the company’s maintenance department but their concerns were never fully resolved, according to their attorney.
“These companies are one stop away from the mob. These families are going through nightmares,” Mr. Moriarty said.
In a statement to The Washington Times, a spokesperson for Hunt Military Communities said the company was aware of the lawsuit and denied the allegations.
“We believe the lawsuit is without merit and intend to vigorously defend the company against these baseless claims,” the company said.
Even high-ranking military officers said their on-base housing was substandard and unhealthy. When he moved into his new home at Randolph Air Force Base, Lt. Col. Mark Hiatt noticed it had recently been repainted. He suspected the paint job was meant to cover over problems.
“It took the mold only three months to reveal itself, first in a bedroom closet and then again and again in other parts of the house,” according to the lawsuit.
In June, Lt. Col. Hiatt’s wife submitted samples from their home to a lab in New Jersey for testing. It revealed the presence of 19 of the 36 tested types of mold — including varieties linked to headaches and a lack of concentration and persistent dry cough, the lawsuit stated.
Mr. Moriarty said companies like Hunt Military Communities routinely make light of or disregard completely the complaints from their military tenants. One of his clients is a colonel whose family members’ clothing became so infested with mold that it sickened others with whom they came into contact.
The private military housing companies “are not accountable to the families. They are not accountable to the government,” he said.
In July 2018, 2nd Lt. Lance Konzen and his wife moved to Laughlin Air Force Base near the border with Mexico so he could learn to be a U.S. Air Force pilot. Both are young and athletic and had always enjoyed good health.
“But within a month of the move, she started having headaches on a daily basis that over time increased in severity and frequency,” the lawsuit stated. “In one instance, Mrs. Konzen began coughing so hard it caused her to vomit and experience severe vertigo. She felt so ill she could not get out of bed, could not make it to the kitchen to eat and began losing the ability to care for herself.”
Mrs. Konzen was eventually taken to a military hospital in San Antonio to be treated for conditions related to exposure to mold. Her health was restored only after the family was transferred from the Air Force base, the court documents state.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys say the problems are not confined to a pair of bases in Texas.
“I’m suspecting we have accidentally built up a reservoir of people with massive health problems that were indirectly caused by the military,” Mr. Moriarty said. “I think this is huge. I don’t think we’ve begun to see where this is going.”
A military member not living in a barracks is usually provided authorized funding known as Basic Allowance for Housing. The amount depends on factors such as the pay grade and the location. If a service member is living off base, then the housing allowance can be used to help defray the rent or mortgage.
When living on base, the housing allowance goes directly to the private company managing military housing. Mr. Moriarty said that gives the military tenants little recourse to challenge substandard conditions.
“These families need to have the ability to cut off that rent,” he said. “If these families had the ability to stop paying rent until they fixed the problem, they’d fix the problem.”
In the end, it might be necessary for the government to simply replace a large percentage of military housing throughout the country.
“This is putting the lives and safety of our military families at risk. This is probably going to have to be done if we want to keep a healthy military,” Mr. Moriarty said.