Navy families with housing problems unloaded on Sen. Mark R. Warner Monday, hoping that stories of sickening mold and other hazards will convince Congress to enact sweeping reforms.
A discussion scheduled by Warner brought about a dozen families, most from Virginia Beach and Norfolk. They described illnesses related to black mold, s falling from a ceiling fan and appliances that sparked fires.
Whitney Jones, a veteran and the wife of a Navy chaplain, said she ended up with a snake infestation, and at nine months pregnant, was left to sop up sewage in her basement.
“There’s an underlying tone of condescension when everyone is calling in, trying to get these problems resolved,” Jones said.
She was among several who blamed Lincoln Military Housing — which manages about 4,400 homes in Hampton Roads — for dragging its feet, while some saw a too-cozy relationship between the housing company and local liaison officials. It was the latest forum for military families to air their grievances, as housing problems nationwide and across all the services have led to Senate inquiries and promises of a fix.
Some told their stories while fighting back tears. Others handed over stacks of photos supporting their stories.
Rachael McClain discovered she was pregnant soon after moving into Wadsworth Shores, near Naval Air Station Oceana, in October 2017. Because of a disability, McClain said she has a service dog and gave doctor’s notes to Lincoln saying she needed to be in a one-story. Lincoln told her she wasn’t qualified.
“December, after finding out I was pregnant, I had my first fall down the stairs and lost my baby,” McClain said.
McClain broke her foot in a second fall.
Later, when the family found mold, McClain said Lincoln blamed her dog and her infant daughter, who suffers from developmental delays because of the exposure.
Now, McClain’s family is thousands of dollars in debt after taking out a loan to move to civilian housing. She sometimes blames herself for not doing more research before moving into military housing.
“How many children are going to suffer? How many times are we going to move into military housing and get sick, fall down our stairs and our complaints and our concerns are ignored because we’re not important enough?,” McClain said. “We’re a paycheck for them.”
Bobbie Barker “fought and fought” to be moved from her first home in Shelton Circle near Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story after mold was found. Now she’s fighting again. She had a story to tell Navy Secretary Richard Spencer when he visited her home there during a recent tour of military housing.
A squirrel died above their bedroom ceiling and maggots began falling onto the bed. Water has leaked into light fixtures and smoke detectors.
“They don’t want to own their responsibilities,” she said. “They want to fight with you.”
After enduring so many problems, Barker is cynical about a solution. This is not the first time issues have come up; similar problems came to light earlier this decade and reforms were promised then.
“How many chances are we going to give them to get it right?,” she asked.
Warner had no quick and easy answers for the group. He has co-filed reform legislation, but even that takes time. He promised to stay on top of the matter and suggested they meet again in several weeks.
“These stories are awful,” Warner said. “Snakes in the basement, sounds like a bad movie. You folks have all been living a bad movie. I’m sorry. This is not right.”
Lincoln has stood by its housing, acknowledging that problems arise but cited high marks in residential surveys. Residents Monday questioned how reliable those surveys are when families are offered incentives to fill them out. Instead, they said they want accountability. Statements in the press or testimony from President and Chief Executive Jarl Bliss before Congress that Lincoln is working to regain families’ trust falls short, they said.
“You can’t regain trust from somebody that’s a ghost,” McClain said.
On Monday, Bliss issued a statement through Lincoln spokesman Trent Duffy.
“Fixing these problems is my top priority, but this effort will require all of us at Lincoln working together,” he said. “I have personally seen and reviewed every case that has been brought to our attention, and we are working with family advocates on reforms to ensure that these problems don’t happen again.”
The complaints Monday were not confined to the Navy and Lincoln Military Housing.
At Fort Eustis, Tara Burney and her husband live in an older home, managed by Balfour Beatty, with an oven that has sparked two fires. The first happened last April, when a heating element shorted out. The second was in January due to bad wiring, which Burney said the company repaired.
Balfour Beatty could not be reached to comment on Burney’s case. Company president Christopher Williams told a Senate Armed Services panel that the company is committed to correcting problems.
“We’re constantly learning from our experiences both good and bad, and we’re always looking for ways to improve our service,” he said
In the meantime, Burney refuses to use that particular burner.
“I’ve already been told that if we ever leave this house we have to buy them a new oven,” she told Warner.
© 2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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