Families living in houses on Dover Air Force Base have seen ongoing problems with mold and leaks in housing managed by private contractors.
Mold, leaks, sewage problems and rodent infestations have been health problems raised by military families in base housing across the country operated by private companies.
Families living in homes on Dover Air Force Base say they have ongoing problems with mold and leaks.
Some speculate that ongoing illnesses are caused by conditions at their Eagle Heights Family Housing homes, managed by Hunt Military Communities.
“You’re damn right I do feel helpless and I’m scared and I’m worried and I want to get the help that I need,” said Kasey Wilson, who has been caring for her children at her Dover base home while her husband is training out-of-state. “But how do I do it? My hands are tied.”
Wilson’s family, and at least one other family, were moved out of their Eagle Heights home in early November and again this month because of mold and leaks. Her family returned last week. She is concerned the seemingly unending problems.
“I’ve been told people aren’t going to care what’s happening in Dover because your problems aren’t as bad as other people’s,” she said. “Well, it is bad here and it’s only going to continue to get worse.”
The issues come as lawmakers have begun applying pressure on military officials about persistent problems with privatized family housing at military sites. The problems led one lawmaker, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, to compare the housing companies to “slumlords.”
Hunt Military Communities did not respond to messages for this story, but at an October town hall, company representatives told Dover residents they had discovered issues with many of the home’s window weep holes. These are openings on windows designed to drain precipitation that collects in window tracks.
The windows have not been replaced, according to residents interviewed for this story.
Hunt operates Eagle Heights Family Housing, Dover Air Force Base’s long-term residences for service members and their families with 980 duplex, triplex, fourplex and single family homes, according to the company’s website. Service members pay rent.
The Wilsons moved into Eagle Heights in 2014, where they lived in a quadplex until 2018. During that time, Wilson said she saw mushrooms growing on the bathroom wall tile and water coming in through the back door.
She didn’t report those issues because she was unsure if the problems were caused by something she did. They eventually moved off base.
But when they returned to Eagle Heights this year, the problems became too much to stay silent.
“On May 30th, we moved back on base,” Wilson said. “Immediately we started getting sick.”
Wilson and her 3-year-old daughter were constantly ill and her 1-year-old son began getting eczema – a condition where patches of skin become inflamed, itchy and cracked.
Wilson and her children were moved out of their duplex in early November after mold was found. They were moved out again on Dec. 5 when more leaks and mold were found in their three-bedroom house.
The three were moved to a hotel, then temporary housing on the base before being allowed to return home Saturday.
The point of the family moving onto base was so that life would be easier for Wilson as she cared for her two children while her husband was training.
“It’s been the complete opposite of easy,” she said. “It has been one of the most difficult, stressful things I have ever experienced.”
While her husband is trying to help, Wilson said there is only so much he can do from far away.
She said the management company won’t talk to her. They only go through her husband.
“It makes me feel helpless,” she said. “I feel like I’m back in the times when women have no rights.”
Wilson became an advocate for other families, learning as much as she could about the problem. That’s when she learned this was going on at other military bases.
“This isn’t unique to Dover,” she said. “It’s happening across the nation.”
The problems here caught the attention of Jim Moriarty, a Houston-based attorney who has filed two lawsuits against the private company that operates Dover’s military housing.
“I’m having people describe what amounts to health nightmares out of Dover and I have a great deal of concern about it,” Moriarty said.
Moriarty is expected in Dover this week, when he plans to meet with military families who have complained about problems with their homes operated by Hunt, the El Paso, Texas-based, company Moriarty is suing at two military bases near San Antonio.
When Congress enacted the Military Housing Privatization Initiative in 1996, it came after concerns were raised by the Department of Defense about inadequate and poor quality housing faced by service members and their families.
Since then, private-sector companies have assumed primary responsibility for military family housing in the United States. These companies are responsible for the construction, renovation, maintenance and repair of about 99% of domestic military family housing in the United States.
Over the last few years, reports of the presence of lead-based paint and other hazards, such as mold and pests, have raised questions about the defense department’s management and oversight of privatized housing.
Last year, Reuters launched an investigation that found exposed lead, asbestos, mold and pests contaminating homes where these private landlords house military families. The news agency also disclosed how one major landlord doctored maintenance records at some of its bases to help it collect bonus incentive fees.
Following Reuters’ investigations, Congress held hearings. It was at a U.S. Committee on Armed Services hearing this month that Sen. Martha McSally compared privatized housing companies to slumlords.
“I see there’s basically 14 companies that have been involved in privatized military housing,” McSally told a director of the government’s Defense Capabilities and Management team. “Are any of them not acting like slumlords at this point? Are any of them doing a good job?”
The director, Elizabeth Field, wouldn’t characterize any company as good or bad, but said there was frustration.
“I would say at almost every installation we’ve visited, we found that the military housing officials on the ground were extremely frustrated with the private partner personnel on the ground,” she said. “[They] were not getting the cooperation or support they needed.”
“These properties are slums,” said Shelley Federico, who in 2012 sued a company operating military housing at a Norfolk, Virginia, base. “They really are.”
Federico and her husband, former Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Joe Federico, sued the operators of the Norwich Manor complex for a host of issues, including mold which they said caused the family to suffer permanent brain damage.
“When I started this there was nobody,” she said. “Nobody believed me. Nobody thought it was an issue and yet here I sit almost a decade later and it’s just rampant.”
Federico started the advocacy group Operation Mission Ready, which provides resources to military families who have be affected by toxic mold.
Her nonprofit helped put Dover Air Force Base families in touch with mold testers.
‘When is the mold coming back?’
Families at Dover Air Force Base interviewed by The News Journal said workers hired by Hunt have told them there was no mold or that the mold found was not dangerous. Mold testers, who were provided by Operation Mission Ready, told a different story.
One family said the testers, which they had to pay for, found aspergillus – a common mold that most people breathe every day without getting sick, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
But aspergillus can cause health problems for people with weakened immune systems or lung diseases. This includes allergic reactions, lung infections and infections in other organs.
Kelly Jonson’s family has been displaced five times since last year. She said mold has been found in three of the houses they’ve lived on while on base. Recently, the family paid to have mold tested by two different companies.
Those results found three types of mold growing on the bedroom windowsill of their daughter’s room, who is immune compromised:
Aspergillus/penicillium, while most people breathe the mold spores, people with weakened immune systems or lung diseases are at a higher risk of developing health problems.
Cladosporium, which can trigger asthma attacks.
Pithomyces, while considered a non-toxic mold it can be an allergen or irritant.
The displacements, which have caused the family of six to be out of their homes for more than 100 days, has weighed on them mentally and financially as they must pay for their lodging before Hunt will reimburse them.
In August, the family was displaced for three weeks, resulting in their son celebrating his 13th birthday in a hotel and the child being classified as homeless by school officials.
“That was a terrible feeling as a parent,” she said.
The problems also have the children on high alert and worried, “Mom. When is the mold coming back?”
Johnson said she’s past being frustrated and is now feeling hopeless, adding she checks her home’s window sills every time it rains to make sure their is no dampness.
“We love living here. We love the area. We love the people here,” she said. “But we don’t feel safe here. We don’t feel like this home is safe and that’s a terrible thing.”
Contact Esteban Parra at (302) 324-2299, firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @eparra3.