Dead rats. Bathrooms spewing sewage. Cockroaches. Toxic mold. Broken appliances.
Military families in Hawaii are increasingly upset about what they describe as filthy, contaminated and unsanitary living conditions in on-base housing, and they are starting to raise a stink about it.
Federal officials, meanwhile, are beginning to take note of the seriousness of the problems.
About 650 military families in Hawaii responded this year to the first independent, national survey of on-base living conditions, with the majority ranking their experiences negative or very negative. Some said they got sick or developed long-term illnesses while residing on base, or lived in fear of becoming ill, as the private landlords who control the properties dragged their feet on necessary repairs.
The largest number of negative reports were lodged against the biggest bases here, including Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe and Schofield Barracks.
Some 17,000 military families nationwide participated, with many providing grim reports about bad conditions at bases throughout the country. An initial report was released in February and the complete review of the data was released in May.
“We have a real problem here and everybody needs to acknowledge that reality,” said U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, who is ranking member on the committee.
The survey responses from Hawaii, which were restricted to people who live in the housing now or have lived there within the past three years, were consistent with the worst reports nationwide.
“The Hawaii data that was collected is quite disturbing,” said Crystal Cornwall, a military wife active in a group effort known as the Safe Military Housing Initiative, who reviewed the data and testified about it at a recent hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The reports also mirror information being shared by military families on social media sites here in the islands.
In recent media postings at a private Facebook page frequented by Hickam families, for example, people have reported lengthy water shut-offs, finding maggot-infested dead rats in their homes, and flooding complaints that went unanswered for days. Some discussed their plans to move off base to escape the health risks they were encountering.
State Sen. Laura Thielen, whose district is near the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base, said the survey results were news to her and that she had not previously heard about problems with on-base housing. But she worries that if more people decide that military housing is unacceptable and move off base, that will add pressure to the limited supply of affordable housing for local families.
“It’s really critical in Hawaii that on-base housing problems be addressed because we have such a tight housing market for our local families,” she said. “They need to address the complaints.”
In the past, military housing was operated by the Department of Defense. But in 1996, with little public discussion, the federal government turned over management of more than 200,000 units to private companies, giving them 50-year leases on the properties.
A lot of housing had been built hastily following World War II and was in poor repair, and the federal government was looking for an inexpensive way to solve the problem. The plan, called the Military Housing Privatization Initiative, was launched under President Bill Clinton and expanded under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Now 99% of all military housing is operated by private landlords, with about a dozen large companies dominating the programs. Nationally, about 30% of military personnel live on base and about 70% choose to live off base.
Service members who live off base receive their Basic Housing Allowance in their pay. But the allowance for those living on base is paid electronically by the federal government to the private landlords, leaving those residents few ways to protest housing problems.
The companies that control military housing have repeatedly reported that their own surveys indicated that military families were satisfied with housing conditions.
“Soldiers and families choosing to live in installation housing have a right to quality, safe, clean and healthy homes,” said Aiko Brum, a spokeswoman for U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii, responding on behalf of the Army and what it calls its “housing partner,” Island Palm Communities.
Island Palms is the private landlord for some 7,800 units of Army housing on Oahu.
According to the Army spokesperson, who responded by email, the Army has held a series of town halls to address maintenance problems, improved communications about maintenance requests and added more workers to the call centers so that residents receive a more timely response to their requests.
In an email, a Hunt executive said that company is trying to fix the problems. Hunt owns and manages some 7,000 homes on Kauai and Oahu, including the Marine Corps base in Kaneohe.
“Hunt takes the responsibility of serving those who serve and sacrifice so much for our country extremely seriously, holds itself accountable and is committed to continuing to make necessary improvements to offer every resident high-quality housing,” said John Ehle, president of Hunt Military Communities, in an emailed response.
Ehle said the company has sped up the maintenance request process and added more on-base maintenance employees. He said the company is also testing a web-based cell phone app that would allow residents to track the progress of their repair orders.
Contacted about housing conditions on base, several local military families this week declined to comment, saying they feared retaliation by their landlords or by their commanding officers if they were viewed as publicly airing grievances.
These fears persist despite a strong warning issued by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe. During the hearing in February, he said that any form of “threat or reprisal” should be reported immediately to Senate Armed Services Committee staffers, who would take the report to top leaders at the Department of Defense.
One of the few who was willing to speak was Brandon Gonzalez, 22, an Air Force mechanic, who said his experience living in military housing near the gate at Pearl Harbor had been satisfactory.
“It’s been pretty good,” Gonzalez said. “If there’s a problem we report it and they get someone to fix it.”
Problems in military housing in Hawaii and around the country first came to light several years ago when military families began circulating stories and sharing pictures of bad housing conditions on private Facebook pages.
Allegations of pesticide poisoning at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe have led to lawsuits, with dozens of military families claiming they were exposed to contamination from pesticides in the soil around their homes.
Hawaii military families reporting health-threatening problems, including rat infestations and toxic mold, have frequently been ignored by their landlords, according to Shannon Razsadin, executive director of MFAN.
She said that more than 50% of the military families in Hawaii who responded to the survey said that they had had serious problems with building maintenance.
“These aren’t just small things,” Razsadin said. “These are issues where families are asking for things to be repaired and they are being passed around to different people, getting different answers. They are waiting a very long time to get issues dealt with.”
Those living in Hawaii reported a litany of problems. At Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, 24% described what they called “filth” and 19% said they had been bothered by mold. Mold was the top concern at Schofield Barracks, with 45% citing it as problematic.
Others shared more specific descriptions of their lives on base:
“On moving in, our bathroom was covered in feces,” said one survey respondent, a member of the family of an enlisted man living at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. “We are in a duplex and there was an underground pipe that was causing sewage to run backwards out of our toilet into our homes anytime we or the connecting unit flushed. It was extremely unsanitary.”
“We were told it was too costly to dig up the pipe and fix the actual issue, so we just had to deal with it. It took almost five months.”
Broken appliances were an issue in Hawaii and around the country.
“I’ve had to have my entire garage door replaced because it literally fell apart, as well as my washing machine,” a resident of the Kaneohe installation reported. “My dishwasher smelled so bad it was unusable. My stove top was broken and my freezer didn’t work.”
Bug infestations were a common concern but military residents said it was hard to get the property managers to schedule an exterminator, so some had no choice but to hire a company on their own.
Several respondents described experiences with rats.
“For months I couldn’t sleep because the rats were playing in the attic all night. It was so loud because of the aluminum vent system in the attic that they’d jump on, that you could still hear them downstairs from the sofa I slept on, or I’d hear traps going off.”
Another Hawaii respondent had a similar report: “Rats would die in our attic, and they’d only come remove them once maggots were falling from the ceiling.”
Razsadin said some families, including many who raised concerns in the survey, continue to face immediate health risks.
She applauded efforts underway to solve the problems but said the issues created by privatized housing are far-reaching.
“It’s a complicated issue and it should never have gotten this far,” she said.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at email@example.com.