Some on-base military housing is infested with mold, vermin and other health risks, report says

Key Points
  • A survey published by the Military Family Advisory Network found that more than half of respondents who have lived in privatized military housing within the past three years had a "negative" or "very negative" experience with privatized military housing.
  • Respondents reported positive tests for lead in water and paint, asbestos in their homes and water quality so low they considered it unsafe to drink.
  • The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing Wednesday on privatized military housing.
Konzens' home in Texas
Source: Megan Kozen

When 2nd Lt. Lance Konzen got his first military assignment, the Air Force recommended he and his wife Megan Konzen move into housing right on his base at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, to help them adjust to military life.

But the Konzens didn't know their new home had mold growing in the vents, which gave Megan respiratory problems and led to several emergency room visits, she said. The family said the private company managing their home didn't provide preventative maintenance or clean the home thoroughly once mold was discovered.

The Konzens are one of several families highlighted in a report from the Military Family Advisory Network published Wednesday, which found that military families living in on-base housing face dangerous conditions including mold, vermin and poor water quality.

The military uses private companies to provide and maintain on-base housing for families, but the report shows that substandard living conditions are widespread.

The report comes on the heels of an investigation by Reuters into privatized military housing that it published in November, which estimated the companies would receive about $3.9 billion through military rent allowances in 2018.

The Department of Defense privatized its military housing in 1996 to improve housing conditions. Currently, 99 percent of on-base military housing is privatized, MFAN's executive director, Shannon Razsadin, told CNBC.

Yet, more than half of the 14,000-plus respondents to the MFAN survey who have lived in privatized military housing within the past three years, rated their satisfaction with housing management as "negative" or "very negative."

Just 16 percent rated their satisfaction as "positive" or "very positive."

The MFAN report, which summarized the survey responses, found that families' complaints were ignored and bad conditions persisted. Even when work was completed, it was "shoddy," according to the report.

"We heard from multiple families that their concerns were downplayed," the MFAN report said. "Many were told that mold was dirt or that nothing could be done about visibly growing mold on windowsills, walls, and ceilings."

Mold growing in the Konzen's home.
Photo: Megan Konzen

Respondents reported positive tests for lead in water and paint, asbestos in their homes and water quality so low they considered it unsafe to drink. They reported health conditions including headaches, respiratory problems and miscarriages that they attributed to their living conditions.

They also "described excessive fees when they moved out of housing, and some said they feared retribution for reporting their concerns," that could hurt their military careers, the report said.

Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb told CNBC that the military and private housing companies work together to review conditions and address living hazards.

"All resident complaints are taken seriously and acted upon by the housing privatization project entity and staff," Babb said in an email.

While military families decide where to live and sign leases with private companies, their housing allowance is taken directly from their paycheck, Razsadin said.

"It's worth noting that military families, unlike most renters outside military installations, do not have the option of withholding rent payment when their landlord does not uphold their lease responsibilities," the MFAN report said.

About 70 to 75 percent of military families use their housing allowances to live off base, Babb said.

"Military members and their families living in privatized housing receive the same rights as residents leasing housing off the installation," Babb said. "They can also file complaints through the state and local regulatory housing authorities, to include filing a lawsuit against the landlord."

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing Wednesday on privatized military housing in the latest response to the Reuters investigation. Other actions taken since the Reuters report was published include a Government Accountability Office examination and an investigation by the Defense Department inspector general, according to Reuters.

Some military families who testified at the hearing said they think the military should stop paying private companies that don't meet certain living standards. One family member said she believes the companies take advantage of young families who might be afraid to question authority or don't understand the potential adverse health effects.

Executives from five of the most prominent private military housing companies also testified before the committee, where they promised to address issues raised by military families during the hearing and cooperate with GAO's review of privatized military housing.

The companies that testified were Corvias Group, Hunt Military Communities, Balfour Beatty Communities, Lincoln Military Housing and Americas Lendlease.

Balfour Beatty Communities said in a statement to CNBC that it would use feedback from residents and the Pentagon to improve residents' experiences. Corvias said it would hire more staff and hold meetings to hear residents' concerns.

The other three companies cited did not immediately respond to CNBC's requests for comment.

Razsadin, executive director of MFAN, said on-base housing provides a sense of security for many military families.

"Because military families move so frequently, sometimes on very short notice, we often don't have the time to check out housing before we go and move to a place," she said. "Families rely on military housing as a safe option with very little commute and the community that is inherent with living on a base."

Megan and Lance Konzen at his commissioning ceremony.
Source: Megan Konzen

Many military families can't afford other options. Megan Konzen, 20, told CNBC she fears her health has been permanently impacted from the mold in her home, but she and Lance, 23, can't move off base to a house in Del Rio, the remote West Texas town of about 36,000 people where the base is located.

The Konzens' HVAC has been cleaned twice by their management company Hunt Housing, but Megan said the couple still found mold growing on the walls and window blinds after the cleaning. She said the company didn't clean the mold properly or do preventative maintenance specified in their lease. The only solution the command staff offered the family was moving off base, Megan said.

"There's really no place to live, and even if there was, we can't afford to live off-base," she said. "I can't go live in the next town over, there is no next town over."

The Konzens are shopping for a trailer so they can leave their house and continue to live on base.

"That's kind of what we're left with," Megan said.