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By the early 1990’s, most military housing needed significant repair or replacement — with a $20 billion dollar price tag for taxpayers.
To speed things up and save money, the military privatized on-base housing. Congress authorized the Department of Defense to enter into decades-long lease agreements with private real-estate companies.
In exchange for the service member’s housing allowance, the management companies would build, operate and repair on-base housing.
But 25 years later, military families across the country say they’ve been stuck in substandard housing with deadly mold, rotting wood, and chronic water leaks.
Ten families at Fort Meade in Maryland filed a lawsuit in November, leveling fourteen charges of gross negligence and fraud against Corvias Property Management. The families are represented by Covington and Burling LLP pro bono.
Who will be held accountable — and how did we get here?
Produced by Victoria Chamberlin
- Congressman Anthony Brown U.S. House of Representatives, D-MD 4th District; @RepAnthonyBrown
- Sandy Buitrago Navy Spouse, Former Fort Meade Resident
- Benjamin Block Attorney, Covington and Burling LLP
- Samantha Clark Special Counsel, Covington and Burling LLP
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast "Dating While Gray." We'll talk with the creator of the WAMU podcast about navigating the dating environment after the age of, oh, 50. But first, 10 families at Fort Meade in Maryland filed a lawsuit in December leveling 14 charges of gross negligence and fraud against Corvias Property Management. The private company is one of 14 contractors responsible for 79 military housing projects across the country. Joining me to discuss what's going on and the history behind it is Samantha Clark, an Attorney at Covington and Burling LLP. Samantha, thank you for joining us.
SAMANTHA CLARKThank you for having us.
NNAMDISamantha, if one has never been around the military it may be surprising to learn that on base housing would be managed by a private for profit-company. Can you explain how this came to be?
CLARKCertainly. So back in 1995 the military was looking at how it could revitalize the housing projects. And, of course, housing on military basis is intended for military members, their families and in some specific space available cases, retirees or civilian employees, but primarily for those military members and their family. And there was some legislation that was being worked on in '95, ended up in the '96 National Defense Authorization Act that allowed for the military services to contract with private companies to put together what was called a ground lease where the services would loan the land to these private companies. And then those private companies would provide housing. They would either manage the housing currently there or they would build new housing.
CLARKAnd part of those agreements was to do a little bit of both in many cases. So they were both maintaining existing housing, building new housing, transitioning people from old housing to new housing. And the idea was that at the end of this project the private companies would then turn those projects back over to the military. And this was done in a way that sort of avoided some of what we call the PAYGO rules in U.S. Congress where you have to pay for all these big projects up front. And this allowed them to leverage some private financing and private money in order to build up a fleet of housing when during this time there was a lot of decrepit old housing that had caused problems back in the 90s.
NNAMDIWhat is the rental agreement with these companies? Do the service members pay rent even though they live on base?
CLARKYes. So that's a great question. So service members are provided by the government what is called a BAH or Basic Allowance for Housing. And they get an amount based on their rank and how many years they've been in the service. And then there are also separate rates for with dependents and without dependents. So in our case all the families have the with dependents rate and it's depending on their rank and years of service. So they are given that money by the government whether -- and they choose. "Do we want to live on base? Do we want to live off base?" In some cases because of your job you're required to live on base.
CLARKAnd so when they enter into an agreement with a private housing contractor in this case Corvias, they must sign a lease saying that they will turn over by allotment all of that money. And not just that, but if they were to have a promotion within 14 days they're required to go report that promotion to the private housing contractor and start paying the higher amount they get from their promotion.
NNAMDIEven though they might be living in the same space?
CLARKExactly. So they don't even have to wait until the end of the year of their lease. You could sign a lease. Five days later promote and then you have to go give more money under that same lease you just signed.
NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Benjamin Block. He is also an Attorney at Covington and Burling LLP. Benjamin Block, thank you for joining us.
BENJAMIN BLOCKTerrific to be here. Thank you for having us on the program.
NNAMDISo Corvias Property Management oversees the on-base housing at Fort Meade. That's an Army installation in Maryland that is also home to the National Security Agency. You are representing 10 families suing the company for negligence and fraud. What is the basis of the complaint?
BLOCKIn a nutshell, these are fine folks, who are living in Corvias owned and managed housing on Fort Meade and they've experienced really terrible living conditions. A prevalent problem with mold in each of the houses, which, you know, was a disruption in their lives, but got them sick, got the kids sick. They had furniture, household items that were contaminated that had to be disposed of. And in many if not all of the cases even though the problems were reported to Corvias and Corvias was supposed to fix it, remediate the mold problem that was done either improperly or not done. So that's why they were looking for help. And that's why we're representing them.
NNAMDIAnd Corvias is the property manager and it's my understanding that Meade Communities LLC is landlord, but it's also my understanding that they share a common origin.
BLOCKYes. They're commonly owned. The CEO of Meade Communities is the same as the CEO of Corvias. So the Meade Communities is the landlord. They're the ones that, I guess, technically own the houses, but they have contracted with themselves with Corvias Management to be the property manager. And Corvias runs the leasing agency. So if you're looking to move on post to Fort Meade and you call up the office to find out what kind of housing is available, you're talking to a Corvias representative. And if you sign a lease that's with someone from Corvias is drawing up the lease, they're all the same. It's a take it or leave it. This is the contract.
NNAMDILet's talk with someone who has personal experience about this. Joining us by phone is Sandy Buitrago, who's a Navy spouse and a Former Fort Meade Resident. Sandy Buitrago, thank you for joining us.
SANDY BUITRAGOThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIYou lived at Fort Meade with your husband, a petty officer in the Navy. When did you first notice problems with your house?
BUITRAGOAt first, everything seemed great. We were moving from California down to Maryland. In California we had an apartment. So it was an upgrade. It was. We were getting a bare house. We were told it was the newest in the best neighborhood and slowly everything started to go downhill. What we thought were just minor issues because -- you know, from dealing with everything it was just always just a leak, you know, we'll have it fixed.
NNAMDIYeah, you noticed water dripping from the top of the windowsill to the living room. You noticed a water bubble on the same windowsill. What did Corvias tell you?
BUITRAGOI mean, to be honest with you they were always very helpful. They were like, yes, we'll take care of it. And we didn't really know any better. It was the first time having a, you know, a house. So they'd pretty much just scrape off the bubble and paint over it. And whether it was water or mold they'd just kind of patch it up and call it a day. And we, like I said, we were just really unfamiliar with these things so we were patient. We were thankful that we just had a place to stay.
NNAMDIWell, why were you patient? Was this happening over and over again?
BUITRAGOIt happened for a course of two years until our house actually -- our living room actually flooded. So, yes, it did happen for quite a while before we actually, you know, we found help. We actually reached out for help.
NNAMDIDid these issues cause a financial burden on your family?
BUITRAGOYes, extremely. My husband -- we're a low ranking family and we're a family of four. So we started having to take matters into our own hands, having to buy supplies for, you know, cleaning up all the mold or to scrape off certain things or shampoo our carpets, because when we moved there we had a six month old who was learning to crawl. He learned how to walk in that house. So we tried to maintain a lot of the things that -- like what we were able to do we tried our hardest. But then there was other things like the leaks and all of that that weren't getting resolved. And even when they were coming out to do the work orders they wouldn't really clean the area where they worked on. So like, for example, if there was a leak they would just come and leave the carpet wet.
BUITRAGOSo then we took it into our hands to buy a carpet cleaner. And then my kid started developing allergy related symptoms so we got an air purifier and so on and so on. We started putting things in our credit card, pretty much everything on our credit card, and we just started being really financially strained. My husband had to get a part time job after work. After, you know, he did his hours in the military he would get off of work and go straight to another job in the evenings.
NNAMDIAnd then he did -- he went a step beyond that it's my understanding that he went to the plasma center.
BUITRAGOOh, yes. That too. And I would go to weekly food pantries just to do what I could on my part.
NNAMDIAnd your husband was trying to get some extra income by donating plasma to the plasma center. If you can tell us, Sandy Buitrago, a little more about the health problems your family faced, because of the mold?
BUITRAGOWe initially thought it was a change in, you know, area. We came from California so we thought there was just a lot of allergens in the air. So we went to get checked for that. And my son, my oldest son, he was the one that was suffering the most with those allergy related symptoms. He'd have flare-ups and his eyes would be bloodshot red every single morning. And they prescribed him eye drops. It didn't help, because during the day we -- it got to the point where we had to send those eye drops in to the school nurse. And I'm not for certain -- I know I have it written down somewhere. But I have I think in a school year he did about 30 days where he was going into the nurse to get the eye drops put in on top of what I had already done every morning.
BUITRAGOSo it was that. My husband and I had a lot of trouble breathing just in the home, very fatigued. And after having an allergy test I ended up coming back with a mold sensitivity. So we were all kind of, you know, little things here and there that we didn't think was related to the home at all until after we got our mold results and everything just kind of made sense to why we had always been feeling so sick in the home.
NNAMDIBecause you'd been going to health practitioners and getting -- medical practitioners and getting treatment for a variety of ailments. But let's fast forward to the present now that you're no longer live in that housing. What happened to the health problems?
BUITRAGOThey've all gone away. My son has not used eye drops for -- I can't even remember. It's been a while ever since we moved here. And even when we were still in Fort Meade and Corvias did move us to another home in Fort Meade we saw the changes right away. In that last month that we were there we completely saw changes. My son's eyes cleared up. My husband started feeling more energetic, better. So I think it was just a matter of getting out of that home.
NNAMDIAnd that mold. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk with Maryland Democratic Congressman Anthony Brown, because Fort Meade is in his district. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about military families at Fort Meade taking their landlord to federal court. We're talking with Benjamin Block and Samantha Clark. They are both attorneys at Covington and Burling LLP. Sandy Buitrago is a Navy Spouse and a Former Fort Meade Resident. And joining us now is the democratic congressman representing Maryland's 4th district, Congressman Anthony Brown. Congressman Brown, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIPart of your district -- and you've heard from constituents about poor housing conditions there. You recently sent a letter to the Garrison Commander at Fort Meade criticizing Corvias Management for preceding over dilapidated housing. Have you had a response?
CONGRESSMAN ANTHONY BROWNYeah. So let me start by thanking Sandy and all the military spouses for their service and sacrifice. And that sacrifice shouldn't include having to live in dilapidated privatized military housing. So that's a real shortcoming on the part of the Department of Defense and installations around the country. Fort Meade is one of them. It's not in my district, but I take ownership of that as does Dutch Ruppersberger, Congressman Ruppersberger who represents Fort Meade. I've got Joint Base Andrews that also has privatized housing. I don't think you can find a military installation that does not have privatized housing.
CONGRESSMAN ANTHONY BROWNSo what I have said in hearings on privatized military housing is that installation commanders sort of dropped the ball, right, because you've got these private military housing contractors, who entered into agreements with the department, you know, in many cases several decades ago. They made assumptions about -- and you've talked about on the show the BAH, the housing allowance. They made assumptions that it would increase over the years. And it hasn't at the rate that was expected. And as a result the contractors have not invested in the properties to maintain them like any homeowner would do.
CONGRESSMAN ANTHONY BROWNAnd as, you know, Sandy mentioned she and her husband now have to do or they had to do at Fort Meade. So the installation commanders should have called the Pentagon and say, hey, we got a problem. And the Pentagon should have come to Congress and say, hey, we've got a problem. Because one thing I can tell you, Kojo, is that when it comes to supporting military families Democrats and Republicans will work together to help the Pentagon solve the problem.
CONGRESSMAN ANTHONY BROWNBut instead what you had at Fort Meade was about 9 or 10 very courageous military spouses essentially blew a whistle. And a year ago it was brought to the attention of Congress. And we have over the last year taken steps to correct the problem.
NNAMDIThe military leadership at Fort Meade provided the following statement to us in response to the lawsuit. Quoting here, "This litigation has not changed the Fort Meade leadership's team's focus on providing healthy and safe housing for its residents. And the leadership is not commenting publically on ongoing litigation between the plaintiff and the privatized housing partner." Do you think military leaders, Congressman Brown, are doing enough to ensure that this housing is safe and healthy for service members living on Fort Meade?
BROWNWell, we've certainly given them the tools to do more. And, you know, we've also given tools to tenants, right? We passed the Tenants Bill of Rights that enable, you know, tenants to go to dispute resolution if there's a dispute and to withhold that basic allowance that we've been talking about during the course of the dispute. So that's a powerful tool. We've also given the installation housing offices, which essentially, you know, report to the installation commander. We've given them more resources, money, funding, for staff to conduct oversight of the private contractors.
BROWNSo let me be clear. My concern with the military installations is not what they're failing to do now, because I think that they are stepping up and they're taking the issue seriously. My concern is that when the problems were developing that is when the military installation should have said, wait, a second, we've got a problem, because this, it didn't take a year to happen. This didn't happen over two years or three years.
BROWNThe kinds of problems that Sandy described just a few minutes ago, those occur over years of neglect. And I have no doubt that military families raised those issues with unit commanders and installation commanders and no one blew the whistle. No one called the Pentagon and said, hey, we have a problem here.
NNAMDIBenjamin Block, how did Corvias Management respond to the lawsuit officially?
BLOCKThey've filed a motion to dismiss saying in effect that Corvias doesn't think it owes any responsibilities or legal responsibilities to the tenants. We'll be responding to that in due course. I'll just -- we don't agree with that position, which I think would come as a surprise to the families on Fort Meade frankly. If you go on Fort Meade, it's Corvias Corvias Corvias. Everywhere you go there's Corvias advertising.
NNAMDIWe also reached out to Corvias Management and they provided this statement to us. Quoting here, "Our resident support teams work repeatedly with the individual plaintiffs to address their concerns as we would with any of the thousands of current and former Fort Meade residents whom we have served. And while we are disappointed that they remain unsatisfied the allegations in their complaint do not accurately reflect how we handled their situations and we intend to vigorously defend this lawsuit." Sandy Buitrago, how does that statement from Corvias make you feel? Was a repeated effort made to address your concerns and were you satisfied with those efforts?
BUITRAGONot at all, at least on our part, like I said, we dealt with it for two years before getting help. And even before, while we were still living in the home having issues sometime around a year into living in the home we had requested to move out to another home, because we were just so tired of having to deal with it that they agreed. They said, yes, of course, you guys can move, but they wanted to charge us a really high fee just to move out. And we were already so tight with our expenses that we couldn't afford to. And we were stuck there. So we stayed there and, of course, we didn't know that the issue was as bad as it was.
BUITRAGOBut I don't believe that they did try to help, because, you know, at first -- I'm not saying they should have moved us right away, but investigated the problem. Because two years I think that's way too long for the same reoccurring problem to keep happening. And them just keep patching up that same wall and painting. It's not doing anything. And now we're, you know, financially distraught and emotionally it really did affect us too.
NNAMDISamantha Clark, Scott called in to say quoting here, "A large part of the issue is that we've commercialized the base housing. The quality differs from house to house. Officer housing is much better taken care of than others. I try to take care of my Marines, but the deck is stacked against the listed soldiers." What do you say?
CLARKThat's a very interesting comment. And thanks, Scott, for writing in. I think, you know, it's true if you go on a base and look, there is very different housing. There's a mix of old historic housing. There's housing that the contractors inherited. There's new housing they built. And in many cases the officers do have a priority to have nicer housing or larger housing. It is done by a rank system. And in some cases you have situations where multiple people live in the same house and they're paying different levels, because of their rank. And certainly that's well-known on the base.
CLARKAnd I think it's challenging for some of the junior personnel to always get the assistance or the help they need. In our specific case there is one family you'll note in our complaint that is a colonel. And otherwise it's all enlisted. Well, it was that colonel and his leadership with his wife that helped work with those enlisted families and try to help them get the help they needed before they even came to us, because they needed that senior advocate.
CLARKAnd so certainly can empathize with what Scott's saying. That happened in our case as well.
NNAMDICongressman Brown, the 2020 National Defense Reauthorization Act includes protections for military tenants. How far will this law go in holding these companies and military leaders accountable?
BROWNSo, Kojo, it does provide tools, but it's certainly going to be incumbent upon members of Congress. And I join with my members -- my colleagues on the readiness committees to perform the necessary oversight. For example, you know, we instructed the Pentagon to develop a Tenant Bill of Rights, which I had mentioned earlier. And we have yet to see a draft of that. I know one might say that, well, you just signed in the law in December. But we've been talking about it and we introduced it back in the summer. So I would have expected the Pentagon to be leaning forward in the saddle and produce that sooner rather than later.
BROWNWe've also required the government housing offices, you know, in each installation to expand their mission to be one of an advocate for military families. So this way, you know, Sandy and similarly situated spouses and military members when they have this problem you have commanders that should be advocating for them, you also have a government housing office.
BROWNAnd Representative Garamendi from California, who chairs this subcommittee has promised that we are going to have regular if not quarterly meetings to keep up on this housing issue and make sure that the private housing developers are doing what they are contractually and quite frankly I think morally obligated to do.
NNAMDIRepresentative Anthony Brown is the democratic congressman representing Maryland's district 4, which includes Fort Meade. Thank you so much for joining us.
BROWNThank you, Kojo. And thank you to everyone else on the program.
NNAMDIHere's Fred in Silver Spring, Maryland. Fred, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FREDHi. We were a contractor for another company in another base for a period of about eight years -- eight or more years. And I think one of the angles that should be looked at too is payoffs from the landlord to -- from the service providers to the landlord. There's payoffs in kind and there was payoffs in other ways too. And I think that when the payoffs were made what happened was the level of care went down to the service members. The service members are a captive audience. You know, they've given a certain amount of money and said, you can live here. And then the government goes on about its business. But leaving that to their care to a private enterprise is -- can sometimes be a little -- I don't know. It's just a little crooked is what it is and that contributes too.
NNAMDII'm afraid we don't have a great deal of time left to go into that issue. But our two attorneys here have taken note of what you have said. And I am pretty sure that they and others will be looking into it. So thank you very much for your call, Fred. Samantha Clark, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDISamantha Clark is an Attorney at Covington and Burling LLP. Benjamin Block, thank you for joining us.
BLOCKThank you for having us, Kojo.
NNAMDIBenjamin is also an Attorney at Covington and Burling LLP. And, Sandy Buitrago, thank you for joining us.
BUITRAGOThank you so much.
NNAMDISandy Buitrago is a Navy Spouse and a Former Fort Meade Resident. We're going to be taking a short break. When we come back, "Dating While Gray." We'll be talking with the creator of the WAMU podcast which dropped today about navigating the dating scene after the age of 50. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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