Joy Viera and her family were excited to move into base housing at Fort Gordon, Georgia, last May after living in hotels for five weeks.
It didn’t last long.
“That night, things took a turn,” she said. Around 8 p.m., after an upstairs toilet had failed to flush, she noticed a liquid leaking from multiple spots in the kitchen ceiling.
It was brown, it was disgusting, and it was flowing uncontrollably, including into the bathtub.
“Water with poop was falling into our kitchen, with our groceries we’d just bought and onto our dog bed,” she said. She immediately notified the privatized housing company on base, Balfour Beatty Communities. Before midnight arrived, they were told they were being displaced, “that we should move to a hotel in an unfamiliar area, with two kids, two dogs and everything we had brought with us,” she said.
So, after moving from Washington state across the country in the middle of the school year and living in a hotel, she had to tell her children they had to move to a hotel again.
“We can’t use any of the bathrooms,” she said. “We can’t live with poop falling from the ceiling.”
Viera and two other Army wives spoke about their experiences during a military housing oversight session on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., conducted by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia. Since taking office in 2021 and meeting with troops and families, Ossoff and his staff have been investigating housing problems at Fort Gordon and across the nation.
Issues like those faced by the Vieras continue despite the massive reforms enacted by Congress more than three years ago, which required the Defense Department and military services to address a raft of tenant concerns and improve their oversight of privatized housing. The Army wives, all current or former residents of Fort Gordon, described their problems with mold, water intrusion, sewage backups and leakage within the past year. And their problems also occurred after the senator’s April 2022 investigation at Fort Gordon that spurred the Army to take action.
Ossoff said some progress has been made to resolve problems with mold evaluations, mold remediation and documentation of work orders uncovered in that initial eight-month investigation.
“We have seen some signs of apparent progress, as you noted, more technicians on staff, more full-time management focus,” Ossoff told Army leaders who participated in the session. “We still have a long way to go … the quality of the maintenance work, the timeliness of the responses to requests for work orders.
“We’ve heard from families about the emotional toll this takes on parents, the health impact on kids and on childhood development, and the impact it has on the morale and readiness of U.S. Army soldiers who defend the nation.”
Ossoff criticized Balfour Beatty officials for declining his invitation to participate, although they have met with his staff and provided documents in response to requests, he said.
“But given that this same company pled guilty to [Justice Department] charges for defrauding the U.S. military and [company officials] say they take seriously the need to improve their operations, their unwillingness to answer questions in a public setting calls into question their commitment to transparency and … improvement.”
In a statement provided to Military Times, Balfour Beatty officials said they declined the invitation “because we have multiple two-way communication channels in place to maintain transparency into maintenance requests, keep residents informed, and allow them to share their feedback and raise concerns. …” They also continue to meet routinely with the local military housing office and command “to ensure any resident housing concerns are being appropriately addressed by our team.”
It’s not clear why the sewage problems weren’t detected by Balfour Beatty or Army inspectors.
“Balfour Beatty Communities has always inspected every home before a new resident moves in,” according to their statement.
Viera said that when Balfour Beatty provided a second home on post, they found dead bugs on the floor, dust and dirt, and mold in the vents.
The wives’ descriptions were reminiscent of the 2019 testimony of spouses from around the country who told Congress about their frustrations with mold, sewage backups, water intrusion and vermin infestation, and dealing with privatized housing managers and maintenance staff who dismissed their concerns.
While this session was about conditions at Fort Gordon, the problems aren’t isolated to that post, said Breanna Barnhart, director of operations at the Safe Military Housing Initiative, a group that advocates for military families who have problems with their housing. “This is national in scope,” she said.
Living on the porch and in the car
And like many other families who have testified before, these spouses described hiring their own independent inspectors to evaluate their homes. Two of the homes were determined to be unfit for human occupancy.
Erin Greer said that rather than being concerned for her family’s health and safety, local company employees were “upset that we allowed an independent inspector to come in and drill holes in the walls.” In September, 2022, that independent inspector told them the home was unfit for occupancy, but Balfour Beatty didn’t agree to move them.
So they stayed out of the house as much as they could, limiting themselves to the front porch and sometimes sleeping in the car. “We didn’t have the financial ability to pay for a hotel,” she said.
The company later arranged for them to move while repairs were made. When the Greers returned, there were still problems, including mold on the carpet, she said.
On April 6, the Greers put in a work order for sewage that was flowing into the downstairs bathroom, and into the hallway and an area in the dining room. The repairs weren’t completed. “To this day, the bathroom floor is still covered in liquid sewage,” Greer said.
In their follow up investigation into housing conditions at the base, Ossoff’s staff also found there have been numerous incidents where Balfour Beatty failed to properly respond to or handle environmental hazards like mold growth. Ossoff said he held a town hall with enlisted personnel at Fort Gordon last week and heard about frustration with the quality of maintenance work, and the lack of professionalism of those who do the work, and the need for better communication with residents.
Many of the families want and need to live on base at Fort Gordon, which is a training base, and generally a short-term assignment. “They can’t afford to live off post. We were fortunate to find something we could afford short-term,” Viera said. “This is not an isolated incident,” she said.
“Our families are at the mercy of companies like Balfour Beatty,” Viera said. “It’s undoubtedly affecting soldiers’ morale. How can they focus on the mission when they’re unsure if their families have a safe living environment?”
‘Committed to fixing this situation’
Rachel Jacobson, the Army’s assistant secretary for installations, energy and the environment, listened to the wives discuss their housing problems.
“I’m very, very sorry for the hardship these families have endured,” she said. “What you have described today and what you’ve experienced is unacceptable. And we at Army are committed to fixing this situation.”
Following Ossoff’s initial investigation, Army officials launched their own investigation. They suspended incentive fees for Balfour Beatty at Fort Gordon and agreed to conduct home-by-home inspections of all living quarters, which began at the Georgia post the week of April 10. Ossoff observed the beginning of those inspections.
The Army has also revised language in ground lease documents, the foundation for oversight of the privatized housing program, specifically outlining the consequences for not complying with the requirements, which could lead to default, Jacobson said. She used this enforcement tool in July 2022 to inform Balfour Beatty it was in jeopardy of default at Fort Gordon.
Following the two investigations, “we demanded the development and implementation of a comprehensive quality assurance and quality control plan,” she said. Balfour Beatty complied with requirements and briefed Army officials on their quality assurance plan in December, she said.
Lt. Gen. Kevin Vereen, Army deputy chief of staff for the G-9 directorate, said Balfour Beatty has made significant housing leadership changes at Fort Gordon. A full-time manager with the needed expertise is now there on the ground, and that “has been a game changer,” he said, helping ensure not only the quality of the work but also the customer service.
Ossoff said he’s encouraged by the initiative to build 76 new homes at Fort Gordon because the underlying problem is the age of the homes. Although it’s no excuse for poor repairs, he said, the base needs new houses. But he questioned how the Army is going to ensure the homes will be well-built, which has been a problem with some of the privatized housing at Fort Gordon and elsewhere.
Jacobson responded that the Army is hiring 23 engineering specialists to focus on housing across the service. They will oversee construction activities and make sure it adheres to Army standards. The consultants who are overseeing the ongoing inspection program will also be on site to oversee the construction, she said.
“It will be y’all’s responsibility to ensure this construction is well-executed. If it’s not, we’re going to be right back where we have been,” Ossoff said.
“Apparent signs of progress need to become real, specific, measurable progress that is felt by the families on post,” he said. “When I return to hold another town hall with enlisted personnel, and I’ll do it again later this year, I need to hear from them that [their] experience has changed,” he said.
Viera urged Ossoff to hold privatized housing companies accountable “for the negligence and failure to maintain the housing our families live in.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.