Emily Rizzo noticed something wrong with the stairs in her privatized military townhouse before falling down them and breaking her right foot two days after Thanksgiving.
In mid-December, frustrated as one no-show appointment by a vendor to look at the stairs gave way to another, the Navy spouse turned to the internet. The stairs were uneven, she wrote, because padding under the carpet didn’t come all the way to the edge, leaving a “lip.”
“A vendor was supposed to come by last Thursday but they were a no show,” Rizzo wrote in her 1-star Google review of her home in Wadsworth Shores near Naval Air Station Oceana. “It’s now Tuesday and the vendor still hasn’t showed. I’ve called the office at least five times this morning with no answer. I am fed up.”
Rizzo is not alone. Her injury was just one in a long string of complaints and frustrations described by Hampton Roads military families who say they have repeatedly reported issues of mold, vermin and water intrusion, and made routine service requests to the companies that manage their privatized housing, only to face indifference.
“You feel like you’re being bullied, honestly,” Savannah Beagles, a Navy spouse who lives in Lincoln Military Housing in Sandpiper Crescent said.
After two high-profile Senate hearings, lawmakers and military leaders insist that housing reforms are on the way. Proposals include the ability to withhold basic allowances for housing if problems aren’t fixed, a standardized lease that covers all the services, a tenants’ “bill of rights” and renegotiating long-term contracts with housing providers.
Virginia Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine are among the lead sponsors of legislation introduced last Thursday that spells out several reforms. Kaine on Friday visited with Navy families in Norfolk. The tour was closed to the press, but Kaine met afterwards with reporters and said, “I got an earful.”
Sen. James Inhofe, chairman of Senate Armed Services said the problem goes beyond eradicating mold and fixing holes in walls.
“If we lose the trust of the military families, we risk losing the next generation of service members,” he said.
On the surface, Beagles’ home near Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek reflects the shabby chic aesthetic of fellow Texans Chip and Joanna Gaines, who became famous for taking dilapidated homes and renovating them into design marvels on HGTV. Just like some of those homes, Beagles found something beneath the surface that couldn’t be covered in shiplap or milk paint.
In October, after a neighbor told her about mold problems in her own home, Beagles found it on walls and pipes in her HVAC closet. The unit has been replaced.
Since moving in to her home in May, Beagles has filed at least 70 work orders with Lincoln, records show. Some of those requests are minor, but others have been made to follow up on other work left incomplete, like moving a stove back against a wall after it was installed. Records also show that she reported leaking from her HVAC unit at least three times since it was replaced.
More recently, workers removed a closet door and baseboards after Beagles suspected more mold was growing. Beagles said the workers told her there was no mold. They are currently ripping out all of the home’s carpeting to replace with vinyl flooring, she said.
A full-time nursing student, Beagles said her grades have dropped while dealing with housing issues. She said she has suffered numerous sinus infections and other health problems, including a rash, since moving in, but has not found a cause. Though she’s become an unwitting voice urging other families to come forward, she has worried that her advocacy could wind up in retaliation.
“We love being a military family,” she said. “We love being a Navy family.”
Senate staffers and Navy Mid-Atlantic commander Rear Adm. Charles “Chip” Rock toured Beagles’ home in recent weeks and she is among a handful of military families who will meet with Warner on Monday.
Rock said he was angered and embarrassed by some of what he saw during that tour.
“We owe our sailors and families better,” he said. “They’ve earned it and they deserve that and we’ve collectively failed them.”
Similar complaints with Lincoln earlier this decade caused controversy and lead to lawsuits. Rock said the service got more involved in overseeing Lincoln’s maintenance records and performing spot checks. More recently, and as a result of nationwide issues across the services uncovered in a Reuters investigation, Navy leadership directed commands to reach out to all sailors to gauge their satisfaction with housing and to make in-home visits to those who request them no later than April 15.
The Navy has also renewed its efforts to remind sailors and family members that they may reach out to their commands for help.
“We need to reexamine this and take the opportunity to look more deeply at our oversight functions to ensure that we really get after the things that are causing problems today,” Rock said.
Lincoln Military Housing manages about 4,400 units in Hampton Roads following a 2005 agreement to privatize military housing. That housing comprised about 74,000 service requests annually, Chuck Dozier, housing program manager for Navy Region Mid-Atlantic, said citing a Lincoln report.
Lincoln spokesman Trent Duffy declined to provide a copy of that report and would not discuss individual tenant cases. The company has hired an independent third-party to review how it handles mold and moisture, CEO and president Jarl Bliss said in a statement.
“We welcome and encourage military families to raise issues about their housing and we regret when expectations are not met,” Bliss said. “On an annual basis, mold work orders constitute less than one percent of service requests, even at coastal installations where relative humidity levels are naturally high.”
Some families turn to Facebook to vent their frustrations. Kitrina Budyach, who until Friday lived in Lincoln housing on base near the Joint Forces Staff College, posted her complaints about mice on the Norfolk Pointe page in September.
In December, she turned again to Facebook, this time livestreaming as water poured from her ceiling after a toilet in the upstairs hall bathroom backed up, she said. Though the ceiling was fixed, she showed a reporter photos of that bathroom still in disarray in early March, with the toilet sitting in the tub.
Rita Estrada lived in Whitehurst Farms in Norfolk for eight years and during the last endured a severe mouse infestation. Mice burrowed into her furniture and she said she had to throw out about $5,000 worth of household goods for which she is fighting to be reimbursed. But that's not what caused led them to leave.
“Lincoln staff was for the most point, horrible," Estrada, a Navy veteran, said. "As soon as they realized that they were being held accountable, they went into cover your ass mode."
Lincoln, Estrada said, refused to move her and even blamed her for the mice. Even after the problem was resolved, she felt she was being pushed through processes to bide time, she said. With a change of duty station to the west coast coming up and her husband already deployed, the family decided it was time to buy a long-planned-for RV. Estrada now lives in it. The RV is parked at her parents’ home in Moyock.
“It sounds crazy but under the circumstances, it’s not bad,” she said. “I actually kind of like it.”
But Estrada said she feels lucky she had the option, something junior sailors may not have.
“They’re new in the Navy, they don’t know any better and they’re afraid to speak up,” Estrada said.
From Hawaii to Newport News
Problems haven’t been confined only to Navy housing, and even after families move, their previous housing woes can continue to effect their lives.
When the Air Force ordered Master Sgt. Adam Gordon to Hawaii, it seemed like a dream assignment for him and his wife, LaDean.
But shortly after moving to Hickam Air Force Base in 2010, unexplained health problems began to plague everyone in the family, they said.
“Within the first six months of moving there – it’s in my medical records – my fingers started twitching involuntarily,” said LaDean Gordon, who now lives her family in Newport News. “It was very weird. I really didn’t think much of it because, you know, it’s just a minor thing.”
Then their 6-year-old twins began to suffer from rashes that couldn’t be controlled with simple anti-allergy medications. Then came the headaches.
“And they weren’t just ordinary headaches, either,” LaDean Gordon said. “They were full-blown, debilitating migraines, to the point where the only thing that they could do was vomit and sleep.”
Their stay in paradise turned into a five-year ordeal that sickened their children and left Adam Gordon permanently disabled.
They say a myriad of health problems are related to high levels of pesticide that are used to control termites on the grounds.
The family paid for tests to gauge the level of various contaminants in their home. They engaged outside experts and today have a stack of documents several inches thick with emails, test results and charts. They’ll be happy to tell their story to any member of Congress.
While in Hawaii, they sought help from Hickam Communities, a part of LendLease, a major military housing provider that offered testimony to the Senate panel last month.
They also requested assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Hawaii Department of Health and several Inspector General offices within the Air Force. But the answers they received amounted to a run-around, with each agency pointing them to a different group.
The Hickam assignment ended in 2015. The Gordons moved to Hampton Roads, where Adam Gordon, 39, was assigned to Langley Air Force Base. He’s retiring after serving 20 years.
His health problems include a condition that causes involuntary spasms and must be controlled with medication. The Gordons moved into a private home because they no longer trust base housing.
“The worst thing for us as military members is, we’re sitting there, we’re getting deployed, we’re spending time away from our families trying to protect them and the nation,” Adam Gordon said. “We’re supposed to not have the worries of our family’s health.”
Because the problems occurred several years ago, some people contacted by the Gordons no longer appear to be working in the same positions.
Ann M. Choo Wharton, a representative of Lendlease at Hickam, wouldn’t comment specifically on the Gordons’ situation, but said the company “remains committed to continuing to work with the military” to improving residents’ lives there.
CEO Denis Hickey told the Senate panel that LendLease Americas is committed to addressing problems.
After listening to complaints from military spouses at the hearing, Hickey said: “These issues have my personal, full attention, and I can assure you we are focused on improving every aspect.”
Broken foot, broken lease
Emily Rizzo said she’s waiting to learn if she will need surgery on her foot.
When a vendor finally arrived at Rizzo’s home in December to address the stairs, they found a broken floorboard. Instead of replacing the wood, the vendor covered the crack, she said.
Emails show she began contacting Lincoln to follow up December 19. On New Year's Eve a Lincoln employee responded that her concerns had been forwarded on. She didn’t receive a reply until January 8, after she emailed that she was annoyed.
The family broke their lease and in mid-January moved to civilian housing a few miles away.
Rizzo said the couple was charged about $350 to break their lease early. After accounting for other fees, the couple got a check for $19 from Lincoln. Rizzo emailed to ask about a refund of their fees about a week ago but had not received a response as of Saturday.
The couple is considering finding a lawyer.
Rizzo said she tried to keep a positive mindset on social media about the community until “it happened to me.”
“I was just like, wow, like, that’s horrible that, one, you’re treating military service members like that,” she said. “Two, that we’re paying so much to live there.”