January 17, 2019 / 11:09 AM / 6 months ago

U.S. Army vows to fix 'broken' housing at Fort Meade in wake of Reuters report

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The commander of one of the largest Army bases in the United States promised residents to fix a “broken” housing system in which maintenance lapses by a private landlord left military families in homes with health and safety hazards.

FILE PHOTO: Water damage to the doorway of a Corvias-managed military housing unit is pictured in Fort Meade, Maryland, U.S. October 29, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Januta/File Photo

The garrison commander at Maryland’s Fort Meade made the remarks in meetings with residents this month in response to a Reuters report in December that detailed the problems, which ranged from mold and rodent infestations to flooding, crumbling roofs and ceiling collapses. Many tenants accused the closely held civilian company that runs most housing at Fort Meade, Rhode Island's Corvias Group, of routinely failing to make repairs.

“Based on the Reuters articles, we failed you. I failed you,” Colonel Erich C. Spragg, Meade’s garrison commander, told families at a January 11 town hall meeting.

“Why are we here tonight? I’ll tell you why: because this is broken,” Spragg said of the Meade housing system, operated by a public-private venture between the Army and Corvias. “I’ve got to figure out where it’s broken, and we have to fix it.”

Corvias staff also spoke at the meetings, acknowledging lapses and pledging improvements, according to audio recordings that were shared with Reuters.

“Trust is hard to earn back, and we’re going to do what we can to earn that back,” JC Calder, Corvias’s operations director at Meade, told residents.

Meade and Corvias promised to overhaul the system for placing repair requests to more swiftly complete fixes. The garrison commander is convening resident focus groups to identify housing lapses.

Owned by real estate developer John Picerne, Corvias operates more than 26,000 family homes across 13 U.S. Army and Air Force bases under the Military Housing Privatization Initiative. It is slated to earn more than $1 billion in fees over 50-year contracts, Reuters found.

Asked about the new promises to Meade residents, Corvias spokeswoman Kelly Douglas said in a statement: “Our core mission at Corvias is clear: put service members and their families first. We can do better, and will do better, in addressing any resident issues.”

She said the company already has a high rate of completing work orders, but “to respond to resident issues more quickly,” is adding additional maintenance and service staff.

In a statement Wednesday, the Army said it is “committed to providing a safe and secure environment on our installations,” and said it recently completed visual inspections of 10 percent of family housing units nationwide with children ages six or younger.

The Army began the inspection program last year after Reuters found lead poisoning hazards  on several bases.

The results, the Army said, “will inform our long-term plan to address issues across the force.”

Fort Meade is the site of a major U.S. Army contingent and home to the secretive National Security Agency. Corvias operates around 3,000 family homes on the base.

The Meade meetings represent the latest promise for military housing reform since a Reuters series, Ambushed at Home, documented hazards nationwide.

Last month, Reuters detailed housing concerns at Fort Meade and two other bases where Corvias operates, North Carolina’s Fort Bragg and Louisiana’s Fort Polk, where a subsequent online petition to “hold Corvias accountable” has gained 5,000 signatures. Corvias said it is reviewing its service request system to better address resident concerns at all bases where it operates.

At the two Meade town hall sessions last week, some families described mold sickening their children, unexplained charges from their landlord, days without heat, and problems that forced them to move in temporarily with neighbors.

Corvias is among more than a dozen private real estate firms housing service families on U.S. bases under the two-decade-old privatization program.

Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, this month told a local TV station he would press for Senate hearings to explore base housing conditions across the country.

Before Corvias took over Fort Bragg housing in 2003, Reed helped make introductions for Picerne at the Army post, and credited his work serving military families. After the Reuters report, Reed said the Senate should review operations of all contractors, including Corvias.

Editing by Ronnie Greene

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