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Army Sgt. 1st Class Carlos Escuza and his wife Pamela breathed a huge sigh of relief last year when they finally found housing in Hawaii.
For two months they had been sharing a hotel room in Waikiki with their teenage son after Escuza was transferred to Hawaii. It would be the last tour of his 29-year military career.
When they finally learned that a four-bedroom unit in the historic section of Hickam Air Force Base was available, they leaped at the opportunity. In the past they had loved the convenience of life on base, with all the amenities close at hand, and they’d had a great experience living at Travis Air Force Base in California.
But after coping with spewing sewage, piles of bird excrement and perennially burnt-out lighting fixtures, the Escuzas were eager to escape Hickam.
“We always thank God that He blessed us with a good family life, but we haven’t had much luck with housing since we got here,” Escuza said.
They weren’t alone in their dissatisfaction. A recent independent national survey called it one of the most problem-plagued military housing complexes in Hawaii and the nation.
Hickam is part of what has been known since 2010 as Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Though the two bases have been joined into a single operational unit, base housing is run by two separate for-profit firms, Australia-based Lendlease, operating as Hickam Communities, and, on the Pearl Harbor side, Texas-based Hunt Cos., which operates in Hawaii under the name Ohana Military Communities.
The combined installation earned the dubious distinction in May of ranking among the most criticized bases by military families surveyed by the Military Family Advisory Network. Pearl Harbor-Hickam ranked eighth in the nation in terms of total responses out of 157 bases surveyed, getting more adverse comments than any other base in Hawaii.
The overall rating of housing at Pearl Harbor-Hickam was “negative,” or 2.3 on a five-point scale, with 59% of the respondents reporting problems in maintenance, repairs and remediation. In addition, 24% of recent or current residents cited finding “filth,” 21% said homes had been built with “low quality materials,” and 19% cited mold as a problem.
About 16% said their homes were “dilapidated and outdated,” 12% cited insect infestations and 7% said their homes were plagued with rats.
In interviews with Civil Beat, service members said the biggest problems are concentrated on the Hickam side.
Originally, the military controlled housing on base, which meant that problems could be addressed within the chain of command. But in 1996, the United States embarked on an experiment called the Military Housing Privatization Initiative, when control of more than 200,000 homes on military bases were transferred to about a dozen large real estate companies to manage through 50-year leases as for-profit ventures.
In the past year, news reports have highlighted unsafe and unsightly conditions in privately managed base housing, drawing the scrutiny of members of Congress, who have called the situation a crisis and demanded accountability by housing company executives and top military officers. Military officers, including at Pearl Harbor-Hickam, have conducted town halls and engaged in community outreach to allow residents to air their grievances.
But problems persist at Hickam, according to interviews with residents and social media reports on public Facebook pages, such as Hickam Communities, and private ones, such as Hickam Aloha Military Spouses.
Among the scenes of daily life posted on the Hickam-related websites are pictures of dead rats found in closets, black mold growing in bathrooms, chipping lead-based paints on the window sills and accounts of water shutoffs that lasted for days.
One post described a disintegrating carpet, moldy washing machine and broken appliances. “Effort to fix these issues was minimal; issues persist,” the resident wrote. “Hickam Communities is a scam taking advantage of service members.”
“Not really sure what to do anymore,” one woman posted recently on Hickam Aloha Military Spouses. “Is there a higher up I can reach regarding our poor living conditions on base? My husband is speaking to his command AGAIN today. I’m done dealing with the community managers. They band-aid everything and never fix the actual issues.”
Some negative comments appear briefly on the sites and then disappear.
Hickam Communities responded to questions from Civil Beat with an emailed statement.
“The safety, health and wellbeing and satisfaction of our military personnel and their families is our top priority and we look forward to continuing our commitment to service excellence,” said Kiki Villanueva, project director at Hickam Communities.
Villanueva said that Hickam has added staff, improved their customer service curriculum to help employees respond to problems more effectively and is introducing new technology to allow people to track requests for service.
Defense Department employees would not permit Civil Beat to photograph or video the base housing complex because they said that Lendlease, the Australian parent company of Hickam Communities, would not allow them to do so.
Chuck Anthony, a Defense Department spokesman, said that Lendlease has the right as a tenant to decide who can come on base.
“Lendlease is one of those tenants that has issues with photography,” Anthony said in a phone interview, adding that the firm had decided to “decline to provide access” to base housing.
In interviews with Civil Beat, residents described dangerous and unsanitary conditions at Hickam.
The people who agreed to speak on the record have found housing elsewhere and moved. People who live on base now declined to speak publicly, saying they feared retaliation by Hickam Communities.
Several reported that their first impression of the community was positive and even idyllic.
Hickam’s extensive housing area is beautiful, with some 2,500 homes nestled among broad green lawns and large shady trees.
About 500 properties are considered historic, constructed with period charm dating from the 1930s to the 1960s. There are dozens of playgrounds on base and, in some places, walking trails give residents a view out to the water. There are fitness rooms, youth recreational centers, restaurants and swimming pools.
Hundreds more homes have been built since then, arranged into modern suburban-style developments with updated amenities.
Service members are given a basic housing allowance to cover the cost of accommodations. If they live off base, the money is deposited into people’s bank accounts and they, in turn, pay their rent.
If they live on base, however, the money is electronically deposited from the federal government to the private landlords. That makes life convenient, but it also makes it impossible for renters to withhold money until repairs are made, as civilians can do.
The amount the private landlords earn per unit varies depending on the service member’s rank and if he or she has dependents. The rents range from $2,100 a month to $4,020 a month.
Nationally, about 30% of service members live on base and 70% live off-base. In Hawaii, however, where housing off-base is expensive and scarce, about 40% live on base, according to Defense Department spokesmen.
In interviews, current and former residents said the picture-perfect scene was deceiving.
On the day the Escuzas moved into their apartment at Hickam, Pamela Escuza found the window sills encrusted with bird excrement and maggots and the floor littered with dead cockroaches.
The lights in the parking lots were perpetually burned out, and Pamela twisted her ankle walking from her car to her home in the dark. Large tree limbs collapsed onto their patio because trees weren’t regularly trimmed, making it easy for rats to climb into the rain gutters and build their nests. A substance they think might be black mold coated the roof of their home.
One afternoon Carlos heard gurgling in the toilet and soon excrement exploded out of the toilet bowl, spraying all over the bathroom, Carlos recalled.
“It was flying in the air,” Carlos recalled.
Pamela opened the washing machine one day and found that it smelled of sewage. She quickly closed the lid, ran it through an ordinary cycle, but she remained unsettled about whether the family’s clothing was really clean.
Pamela’s requests for repairs mostly went unanswered, she recalled recently.
“They ignore my calls and my emails,” she said.
Their neighbors warned them not to ask for repairs because they would suffer retaliation.
As soon as they could manage to do so, the Escuzas left Hickam and found military housing elsewhere on Oahu, moving out last month.
Julie Zack and her husband, a Navy lieutenant commander, also started out happy at Hickam. She asked that her husband’s name not be used because they fear it would hurt his career.
“The houses are beautiful, the neighborhood is beautiful,” Zack said in a recent interview. “We were planning on starting a family so it seemed great.”
But a few weeks after they arrived, a neighbor who was moving off Hickam told them that the previous residents had been evacuated “in an emergency” because of serious health problems they developed after living there. She was told the issue was black mold.
“Clearly there was something majorly wrong with the home that hadn’t been disclosed to us, and that was upsetting,” Zack recalled. She was told the problem had been remediated.
At one point a bird got stuck in the vent of her home. She could hear it cooing and moving from floor to floor. When she called to have it removed, Hickam property managers told her to wait for it to die, she said.
Then, after Zack got pregnant, she noticed peeling paint in a downstairs room and asked for it to be tested. She asked the maintenance man if it was lead-based paint.
“He said, ‘I’m not sure I’m supposed to tell you,’” but then admitted it was lead paint, Zack said.
She told the maintenance staff she was worried that her soon-to-be born baby would be exposed to lead-based paint.
“They were dismissive,” she said. “They said open your windows. I said ‘I’m pregnant.’ They didn’t seem so concerned.”
Zack decided to get out as soon as possible, before the baby arrived. Although her husband was away at sea on a military exercise, she decided to move by herself to get out faster. She found another home in 2017 in military housing located elsewhere and quickly departed.
“We were okay living there as adults,” she said recently. “We knew not to eat the paint chips, but as parents it seemed really risky.”
Reshanda Fowler worked at Hickam as a property manager in 2016. She had happy memories of living at Hickam when she was a child, but she ended up leaving after a series of disputes about how the company was operating, she said.
Fowler said that the company had “maintenance issues and a lack of resolve” for getting things fixed. There was always a large backlog of work left undone, she said.
It was common for there to be a 200-family waiting list for air conditioning repairs, she said, but the company would not authorize the use of overtime to get units fixed more quickly.
Residents were unhappy, she recalled, but nothing was done to make things better.
“So many people came in every day to complain, even officers,” she said.
The company resisted helping people, she recalled, even residents who presented medical documents showing they needed accommodations to be made.
“I felt so sorry for most of the people I was placing in homes. It was a sad situation,” she said.
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