Health risks for families in military private housing probed by U.S. Senate panel

Soldiers ask a military family to respond to a survey as part of an ongoing Army-wide effort to resolve inadequate housing on installations. Army senior leaders introduced an action plan that outlines steps to remedy military housing issues to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., March 7, 2019 | Dawn M. Arden

By Ariana Figueroa, Michigan Advance

A U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel last Tuesday grilled officials running private housing for service members about reports of deplorable living conditions from military families.

The hearing, led by Chairman Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat, and top GOP member Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, followed a joint release of a report by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

The report detailed that from August of 2021 to April of this year, staff at Balfour Beatty Community “frequently ignored or delayed responding to urgent requests from military families to address conditions such as mold and roof leaks that threatened the families’ health and safety.”

The problems plagued homes on two military bases —  the Fort Gordon Army Base in Georgia and Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. Balfour operated about 1,000 homes at Fort Gordon and about 700 homes at Sheppard AFB.

“The results of this investigation are alarming, are disturbing, reveal injustice imposed on servicemembers and their families, reveal grave risks to the health and safety of servicemembers and their families, reveal neglect by Balfour Beatty, which is responsible for housing tens of thousands of military families,” Ossoff said in his opening statement.

One witness, Capt. Samuel Choe, testified that while he and his family were stationed at Fort Gordon, they lived in a private housing facility run by Balfour.

Choe said his daughter, now 10, developed a potentially fatal mold allergy after they moved into their home. Choe said his daughter had a rash on her arms and legs from exposure to black mold and mildew in the apartment, despite his and his wife’s repeated reports to the company of the visible mold they saw.

Choe traveled from where he is currently stationed in South Korea, a 17- hour flight, to testify.

“Words, deeds, nor my testimony will never be able to fully convey the physiological, psychological, and emotional anguish that she has had to endure, and may endure for the rest of her life,” Choe said about his daughter. “It is expected that she will have to weather her atopic dermatitis well into her adult years.”

Choe said from June 2021 to February of this year his daughter has received two shots per month to help her skin conditions. The treatment she receives is retailed at $3,000 to $4,000 per injection.

Balfour pushes back

The hearing was broken up into two panels of witnesses. Senators heard from housing advocates and members of military families, such as Choe, who lived and currently reside in Balfour homes, on the first panel.

Officials from Balfour — Richard C. Taylor, the president of facility operations, renovation and construction, and Paula Cook, vice president of military community management — were on the second panel.

Balfour operates more than 43,000 on-base homes at 55 separate Army, Navy, and Air Force bases in 26 states, serving about 150,000 residents.

The Department of Justice investigated the company for defrauding the government for six years, which Balfour pleaded guilty to in December.

“Instead of promptly repairing housing for U.S. service members as required, BBC lied about the repairs to pocket millions of dollars in performance bonuses,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco said in a statement following Balfour’s guilty plea.

Taylor and Cook defended Balfour, and affirmed that their company was working to fix its errors. They pushed back on testimony from witnesses in the first panel, including Choe.

Johnson pressed Taylor to respond to testimony from Choe, along with more from Tech. Sgt. Jack Fe Torres, who said when he reported mold in his home the work orders were changed or closed even when the problem was not solved.

“I think it’s their perception of what transpired,” Taylor said. “I think that we’ve got a different perception.”

Ossoff asked Taylor why the panel should ever trust Balfour, pointing out that the company in December pleaded guilty to committing fraud against the U.S. government from 2013 to 2019.

“Things go wrong. We are not perfect,” Taylor said.

Taylor objected to charges from Ossoff that these were systemic problems with Balfour housing and said he believed his company could be trusted.

“I’m shocked you don’t think it’s systemic,” Ossoff said, adding that every time he visits service members in his state, he hears complaints about Balfour management.

Sen. Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, said she was concerned that these issues could be happening in her state as well.

She asked Rachel Christian, the founder and chief legislative officer for the Armed Forces Housing Advocates, how widespread the misconduct is at Balfour, as well as other private housing contractors.

“You will see it at every installation you go to,” Christian said.  She said that among 55 Balfour Beatty installations, “I cannot come up with one where I haven’t seen an issue with work order closure prior to completion,” as well as mistreatment of military families.