Fort Gordon housing problems still getting worse, families tell Ossoff
WASHINGTON (WRDW/WAGT) - Sen. Jon Ossoff continues to hear horror stories about the maintenance of family housing at Fort Gordon, with one mom telling of “poop falling from the ceiling.”
Fort Gordon families were in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday for an oversight session with Ossoff, D-Ga., and top Army leaders that started shortly after 9 a.m.
WATCH STREAM OF THE SESSION:
Many families say they suffer long-term health problems from toxic mold and other issues with the housing.
As the session started Tuesday morning, Ossoff said one of the family members testifying had received a call the night before from someone in a leadership position asking about the planned testimony and pressing for answers on whether the family member would speak about that person and their staff.
Ossoff condemned the contact with the family member, saying people must be able to speak freely about the problems without fear of retribution.
Our Meredith Anderson has been uncovering unsafe housing conditions on post for more than a decade. She was in Washington for the session, too.
Almost one year ago, Ossoff and his Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released the results of an eight-month investigation into military housing that culminated in a hearing on Capitol Hill.
At the center of the controversy is Balfour Beatty, the company that manages privatized family housing at Fort Gordon and several other military installations.
In opening Tuesday’s session, Ossoff said he has “heard over and over again the anger and frustration” about “substandard housing conditions on post.”
So he continues to try to tackle the problem.
He said his team has spent the past several months pursuing a follow-up investigation.
READ THE FOLLOW-UP INVESTIGATION:
He said his staff has conducted dozen of interviews and pored over thousands of pages of documents to scrutinize the practices of Balfour Beatty at Fort Gordon.
He noted that Balfour Beatty has said it hired more maintenance staff at Fort Gordon and worked to improve the housing there.
However, Ossoff said the company continues to struggle to ensure the technical quality of work there and to remediate mold in post housing.
It also has problems ensuring the accuracy and integrity of work orders, Ossoff said, adding that the company must prepare for the long term to sustain family housing at Fort Gordon
Ossoff said Balfour Beatty was invited to send company officials to answer questions at the session, but they declined.
He noted that company officials did meet with his staff, but he said their unwillingness to answer questions in a public setting calls into question their commitment.
Testifying Tuesday were family members who told of living on the porch, in their cars and at hotels out of fear for their health amid moldy conditions in their homes on post.
Among those family members was Erin Greer, who said her family has lived in Fort Gordon housing for several years.
She said there has been a persistent problem with moisture and mold, and Balfour maintenance staff members have been unable to find the source or fully fix the problem.
She said instead of the situation getting better with Balfour in the past year, it’s gotten worse.
The problems have continued as recently as this month, she said.
She told of a partially collapsed ceiling, mold on the utility closet door and around the entrance to the home.
She said the family brought in an independent mold expert to test the property, and the results raised health concerns.
She said on Oct. 7, the family moved into a hotel out of fear for their health. Balfour made the arrangements, she said.
She said Balfour brought in its own mold inspectors and claimed to make the necessary repairs.
The family moved back in on Oct. 17 to find black mold on the carpet.
It’s still there, Greer said.
She said Balfour wouldn’t refund the family’s rent money or let them out of their lease.
Just this month, she said she filed an emergency work order April 6 because of sewage flooding from a toilet in a bathroom.
Balfour didn’t completely repair the bathroom, she said, and “the bathroom floor and outside of the bathroom are still covered in liquid sewage.”
She said the family suffers health problems including chronic fatigue, body aches and memory loss, among other symptoms. She said she believes their two dogs died well before their time.
The family blames toxic mold in the home.
She said her health problems in April have been “much worse” than other problems in the past.
“I am very hopeful for a change for the better,” she said.
Also testifying was Joy Viera, who said the housing problems are affecting morale.
She said the soldiers are trusting the privatized housing companies to provide safe living arrangements for their families while the soldiers are deployed.
But if they can’t trust that housing, they worry about their families, so when they are deployed, they can’t focus on the mission, which is dangerous, she said.
She told of sewage problems at her house, as well.
“All of the sudden, we have liquid poop ... falling from the ceiling into our kitchen, with our groceries that we had just bought,” she said.
This all happened after the family had spent weeks moving across the country and staying in hotels only to arrive at Fort Gordon and find that no housing was available.
Finally, a home was available and they moved in only to be greeted within hours by sewage flowing from the ceiling. Next the sewage backed up into bathtubs, Viera said.
“It was a nightmare,” she said, adding that the family learned Balfour had known about the plumbing issue before they moved in.
The I-TEAM first introduced you to Viera last summer when she told us about the raw sewage backing up in her bathroom.
EARLIER COVERAGE FROM NEWS 12:
- Senators hear of horrors blamed on military housing
- We asked a simple question about Balfour Beatty
- Housing problems continue with Balfour Beatty
- Fort Gordon housing investigation update
- Army moves quickly on Fort Gordon housing
- How military families feel about housing settlement
- U.S. Army kept in the dark about issues
The next month, they got a second home from Balfour.
“I immediately noticed that the house was not clean,” Viera said, adding that she refused to move her family in.
The Army responds
After a break that followed testimony from the Army families on Tuesday morning, Ossoff heard from Rachel Jacobson, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment.
Also at the session was Lt. Gen. Kevin Vereen, deputy chief of staff of the Army, G-9.
“I’m very, very sorry for the hardship these families have endured,” Jacobson began. “What you have experienced is unacceptable.”
She said the Army is committed to remedying the situation.
“Retaliation is never acceptable, ever,” she said.
She said the “ground lease” is the key tool for overseeing the housing provider.
She said new ground lease language outlines consequences for the companies that fail to fix deficiencies. She said the companies must immediately correct instances of noncompliance.
“I utilized this the legal enforcement tool on July 12, 2022, when I issued Balfour Beatty a notice of noncompliance with the terms of the Fort Gordon ground lease, informing them that they were in jeopardy of default,” Jacobson said.
In response to the investigations by Ossoff’s subcommittee and by the Army itself, Jacobson said she demanded quality control and maintenance plans from housing providers, and they gave her those plans.
A briefing was held Dec. 9 addressing addresses processes for maintenance and work orders including those for life, health and safety, she said,
Every time a tenant moves out, trained Army personnel will inspect work done by Balfour to prepare the home for the next occupant, Jacobson said.
The results should be a better home waiting for the soldier, she said.
Trained Army personnel will also conduct follow-up inspections of repairs involving life, health and safety, she said.
Additionally, there will be random inspections of all maintenance work, she said.
Installation management is adding 23 engineering technicians “across the portfolio,” she said.
Among their duties will be monitoring construction of new homes to ensure adherence to Army standards, she said.
There will be regular meetings between Army management and Balfour every week, she said. Garrison leaders and officials with the housing providers will review critical issues like displaced residents, dispute resolution and scorecards that track status of life, health and safety matters as well as other items.
“Perhaps most importantly,” Jacobson said, there are regular town hall meetings where residents can speak up about their issues.
She said all Army housing providers have accepted a tenant bill of rights and results are being seen.
She said the implementation of a dispute resolution process is important to restore residents’ confidence in post housing.
She noted that the role of Fort Gordon, including the addition of the Cyber Center of Excellence, has changed since housing was privatized.
As a result, there are new needs.
So the Army is seeking $50 million in the 2024 budget to build new housing at Fort Gordon.
“This will go to housing at Fort Gordon,” she said. “It doesn’t go into Balfour Beatty’s pockets. This is to build new homes at Fort Gordon.”
The money will pay for up to 100 new townhomes, which “will have a major impact on quality of life” on the post, she said.
That new housing had been planned earlier but put on hold due to the cost of lumber and pandemic.
Also, $5 million is being sought to revitalize about 182 homes on post, she said.
“There remains much to be done, but we are encouraged by the progress we are making,” she said, adding that the Army “will not let up on our oversight.”
She said: “We have to get it right, and we have to do better.”
Ossoff asked Jacobson what steps are being taken to ensure mold is remediated.
“Mold is a chronic issue .... we have to get at not only in these houses but in barracks,” she said.
Jacobson said the Army has issued some very technical documents on how to remediate mold and given directives to garrison commanders.
“We have trained personnel who are supposed to be able to recognize mold,” she said.
“But we are obviously not doing enough,” she said.
Vereen said the Army has done a lot to staff up on trained experts who know how to recognize and remediate mold problems.
In the past, the Army has not always had that at the installation level
“I think we’re turning the corner,” he said, adding the the Army may not be where it needs to be but is getting there.
Vereen responded to a question on how to measure progress.
He said in the daily operation side, one key is looking at customer service issue like how long it takes to complete a work order.
Jacobson said the biggest improvement by the Army is awareness so leaders can monitor problems and be aware of ongoing issue.
Vereen said lack of quality housing impacts morale and readiness.
“Our Army is about people and our Army is built around people,” Vereen said, and taking care of those people is crucial.
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