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Many military families around the country live in decrepit government housing. Reuters revealed this in an investigation late last year. We're talking about mildew, bad plumbing, leaking ceilings, cracked foundations. Army Secretary Mark Esper says the problem is likely bigger than anyone realizes. He and other leaders are visiting Army housing from Maryland to Texas. Today Esper appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
NPR's Tom Bowman visited some of the troubled military housing at the Army's Fort Bragg in North Carolina along with Secretary Esper, and Tom brings us this report.
ANTHONY BLANKENSHIP: Hey. How you doing?
MARK ESPER: Good.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Mark Esper walks into the ranch-style style home of Private 1st Class Anthony Blankenship (ph) and his wife, Brittney (ph). Right away, the soldier shows the stained tiles next to his toilet.
A BLANKENSHIP: And that's just the mold pattern growing underneath the...
ESPER: It's kind of a greenish stain on the...
A BLANKENSHIP: Yeah.
ESPER: ...On the tiles?
A BLANKENSHIP: Yeah.
BOWMAN: He says workers at times did a quick fix, like putting new grout over the mold, or they didn't respond at all to work orders for things like backed-up plumbing or faulty ventilation ducts.
A BLANKENSHIP: Sometimes they'd delay it, or they won't even show up. And then we call in again, and they're like, we don't have any recollection. No recollection that you even put it a work order.
BOWMAN: They've only been in the house since last August. Brittney tells Esper their problems are not unique.
BRITTNEY BLANKENSHIP: We know a lot of families that are - unfortunately, their house is worse than ours.
ESPER: Encourage your neighbors to come forward. It would help us fix the problems.
BOWMAN: But a recent survey by the Military Family Advisory Network, a nonprofit group, found that many of the 17,000 respondents were often afraid to come forward, fearing retaliation from the private companies that manage the housing. One respondent said a company official threatened to call a soldier's commander if he continued to complain.
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BOWMAN: Brittney plays with her toddler, Jason (ph), and tells Esper about her own childhood in Army housing.
B BLANKENSHIP: I don't remember it being like this. I don't remember my parents really going through this.
BOWMAN: That's because something changed in the late 1990s. Congress shifted the maintenance of on-base housing from the military services to private companies to save money and speed the process. A half-dozen companies are responsible for the work at Army housing around the country. At Fort Bragg, that company is Corvias Military Living, and a Corvias official, Hugh Burleson (ph), is along for the tour, taking notes. Esper approaches him outside the house.
ESPER: I mean, the stories aren't getting any better.
HEATH BURLESON: The stories are getting better, sir.
ESPER: I'm - the stories that we're hearing of the past. Right? Past problems.
BURLESON: No. No.
ESPER: You guys have fired some people, and all that?
BURLESON: We have. We released our leader on the ground here...
BURLESON: ...And then also another leader.
BOWMAN: But Burleson says poor work performance doesn't explain it all. Congress cut back the basic housing allowance that every soldier receives in his use for housing maintenance. Burleson refers to it as BH.
BURLESON: There definitely was a financial component. Absolutely. BH has been reduced over the past five years. Basic Allowance for Housing is what funds the program. And so therefore, less revenue, less opportunity to have the proper use of expenses.
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BOWMAN: Secretary Esper, along with a caravan that includes Senator Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, moves on to another house selected by the command at Fort Bragg, the home of Sergeant Terry Blood (ph) and his wife, Krysta (ph).
ESPER: Hey, folks. How you doing? Hey, Sergeant Blood. How are you?
BOWMAN: Krysta Blood shows drywall in the hallway. It was only recently patched to replace some shoddy work.
KRYSTA BLOOD: The drywall patches were just falling from the wall. There was exposed screws and all kinds of things. So this is kind of where it - just, as the years have gone on, things just started happening.
BOWMAN: Things like no heat for two weeks when they moved in four years ago with their three children and carpet that was laid without padding.
K BLOOD: Babe, can you move that?
BOWMAN: Krysta leads the group to the garage and points to a stain in the ceiling in the storage closet. Water often pooled on the damaged floor.
K BLOOD: Finally, I looked up, and the roof was leaking.
BOWMAN: Senator Tillis squeezes in and looks for himself.
THOM TILLIS: You may still have a leak 'cause it's wet.
K BLOOD: It's the tub. So...
TILLIS: Yeah. If it was 48 hours ago, it should've well been dry by now.
K BLOOD: For four years, that tub water has been leaking from children's baths. Can you imagine what kind of water has been in between the floors for this time?
BOWMAN: And what about other friends? Are they having trouble with Corvias, as well?
TERRY BLOOD: Pretty much the exact same issues. Actually, one of our friends right across the street just got surveyed, and they have foundation cracks. During the summer months, they have...
K BLOOD: Grass growing up through their floor.
T BLOOD: Growing up through their floor.
BOWMAN: Both Secretary Esper and Senator Tillis say they'll get to the bottom of all this - push Corvias and other companies to complete repairs, maybe rewrite contracts and look into that Housing Allowance Funding. Secretary Esper also says he's working on a tenants' Bill of Rights.
ESPER: I'm just - I apologize that you guys had to go through this for this long, right? You and all the other families. So now our challenge is, get it fixed for the entire organization. You know, make sure this doesn't happen again. And a big part of that is the Army staying on top of it.
BOWMAN: The Army staying on top of it. Several spouses at a town hall meeting with Esper wondered if that will happen once the high-level visits in the hearings come to an end. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Fort Bragg, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.