By Lanessa HillSeptember 30, 2019
One year has evolved since efforts began to improve housing across the Army, and here at Fort Detrick we continue to make progress thanks to efforts on a number of fronts. Specifically, the many residents and leadership members who attended multiple town halls, met with Fort Detrick and Army leadership, participated in the Army Housing Survey, and lastly continued to submit work orders through the rental portal and the Commanders Hotline all combined for success in this endeavor. It is this type of effort and teamwork that allows Fort Detrick to become a better place. We still have a lot of work to do, but both Fort Detrick and Balfour Beatty Communities leaders have heard our voices loud-and-clear: we must do a better job for our people. We need to be more responsive, and are taking steps to do so.
We wanted to recap accomplishments in the past year and further touch on both our continuing efforts and the way forward, because our residents who choose to live on the Installation have a right to safe and clean housing.
As far back as September 2018, Fort Detrick held a town hall for residents concerning conditions within family housing units. This meeting was intended to inform the community of an Army directive to identify homes constructed prior to 1978 in order to inspect them and test the units for lead-based paints. The Garrison was also tasked to determine if the units had been approved in the Maryland Lead Free Certificate Program. In working with Balfour Beatty Communities, we identified 150 homes built prior to 1978, and further determined 115 units were certified in the Maryland Lead Free Certificate Program. Of the remaining units, two are currently being processed, while 23 others are undergoing repair work prior to further testing. This is dramatic an improvement over previous numbers indicating that only 60 homes had received certificates.
Just a few months later, in February 2019, families of Service Members testified before a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee about conditions and safety issues within privatized housing. Their appearances were eye-opening; providing first-hand accounts of a lack of oversight resulting in poor, substandard living conditions. As a result of these moving stories, the Army mandated leaders visit 100% of the affected homes by March of 2019 to gain immediate visibility of all emergency and urgent work orders in family housing and barracks, as well as to identify any unsafe or unacceptable living conditions or maintenance deficiencies affecting life, health safety. Life, health safety is defined as an emergency condition that, if not corrected, may cause harm or injury to a person. Issues such as mold, broken air conditioners, and water leaks were some items identified as a result of home visits and discussions with residents.
Regarding the issue of housing, former Secretary of the Army --and current U.S. Secretary of Defense-- Dr. Mark T. Esper said, "We are deeply troubled by the recent reports highlighting the deficient conditions in some of our family housing. It is unacceptable for our families who sacrifice so much to have to endure these hardships in their own homes. Our most sacred obligation as Army leaders is to take care of our people - our Soldiers and our family members."
For leadership at Fort Detrick, these visits provided valuable insight to what has been neglected, and further shined a light on potential solutions; including opening the lines of communication between residents, Balfour Beatty Communities, and installation leadership. Through this process, the Garrison also realized that repairs and maintenance requests were not being completed -- and work that had been completed was unsatisfactory. As a result, a hotline number was established and manned 24-hours per day; and further recording all calls and reporting complaints to the Garrison commander first-hand. As a result of the candid replies of residents, the persistency of staff, and overall accountability, ten families had to be displaced for the duration of repair work. Currently all but one family have returned to their homes. Tenants now know that if their living conditions are not satisfactory, they have avenues to report issues directly to leadership.
Since that first home visit, the Garrison held multiple town halls at Fort Detrick and at Forest Glen. One event included the Department of Army Inspector General and the most recent meeting was held between, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment, Honorary. Robert H. McMahon
In July of that year, the Army released the results of the Army Family Resident Satisfaction Survey. For residents at Fort Detrick, the top concerns were: discolored water, quality of maintenance, and responsiveness of Balfour Beatty Communities leadership. At Glen Haven Apartments, concerns were: security of the housing area, pest control, and a lack of responsiveness of Balfour Beatty Communities. Survey results were shared with residents at a town hall held in August and many attendees provided additional concerns and others provided great ideas how to work together and keep pushing forward and making improvements.
So, what has Fort Detrick accomplished this past year to improve the quality of housing here on the Installation?
To start, the Garrison Housing Office hired four new people to provide oversight of the housing area. Those extra bodies enable the Garrison to review every life/health/safety service order, inspect every home between occupancy using a comprehensive checklist, follow up on at least 5% of the closed service orders to ensure resident satisfaction, and visit 100% of those who notified the housing office indicating dissatisfaction with the maintenance performed.
The Fort Detrick and Glen Haven locations have developed action plans. These plans include deadlines to either have a plan in place for specific topics or complete the work. These plans were sent to residents through the rental portal provided by Balfour Beatty Communities. Further, Balfour Beatty Communities hired a new management team for both locations and the Garrison is hopeful that, as a result, responsiveness will improve.
As mentioned earlier, the top complaint at Fort Detrick is discolored water. During the August town halls, the Garrison and the Balfour Beatty Communities management team learned that additional homes --beyond the original 39-- reported problems with brown water. Later that month, a letter was sent to residents making them aware that Balfour Beatty Communities would be installing water filtration units on a select number of homes to as part of a pilot program to determine the effectiveness in resolving the brown water. The letter was jointly signed by the Garrison commander and Balfour Beatty Communities leadership.
The letter stated that, "[A]ged infrastructure across the Army is a concern and the 70 year old water piping at Fort Detrick is just one example impacting us here. For several years, the Directorate of Public Works flushed water lines multiple times a year to clear the sediment in the pipes. Despite our efforts, the Garrison still continues to receive reports of brown water and health concerns expressed by residents. Discussions continue on the way ahead to correct this issue and several options are being considered, including requesting funding to replace all the piping across the installation".
As an update to the piping infrastructure, the Garrison recently received news that a funding request of nine million dollars to replace sewage lines was approved. We are hoping to get additional funding for a second project that would replace the infrastructure of the water distribution system.
At the request of residents, Fort Detrick Police Officers have increased patrols in the housing area and speed enforcement on post has increased. Further, resident guides in English and Spanish have been distributed, and maintenance teams are being retrained on work order processes.
All homes are being inspected by Garrison housing representatives prior to move-in dates to ensure homes meet Army standards, and that all units both at Fort Detrick and Forest Glen have been treated by pest control companies.
At Glen Haven, concerns of trash, pest control, crime, security, and loitering were topics frequently brought to leadership. The action plan developed for Glen Haven was substantially different than Fort Detrick. As such, Balfour Beatty Communities leadership added follow-on service treatment days for units with significant pest issues. A landscaper has been identified and will begin trimming trees and surrounding bushes from units.
Fencing to secure the basketball court has been received and is being evaluated. The same is true for lighting in the parking lots after many residents expressed safety concerns associated with dark parking lots.
Information has been submitted to residents gaging interested in forming a Neighborhood Watch in association with local law enforcement. Preventative maintenance will occur more often and increased communication with residents through the resident portal has already started.
Resident boards are also being considered and possibly installed near mailboxes, making event information and various notifications more easily available to residents. Lastly, resident vehicle stickers are being secured and will be distributed to residents helping them identify residents versus non-residents more easily.
Lastly, Garrison Commander Col. Dexter Nunnally stated he wants to get Montgomery County Officials more involved at Glen Haven. He wants to figure out a way the Army police at Forest Glen Annex and Montgomery County can work together to increase police presence and patrol. He also hopes to meet with the Montgomery County Council Executive to shed some light on military housing in Silver Spring, MD.
As you can see, we have made strides to improve housing -- yet there is so much more we can do. Our goal is to reestablish the trust between residents and leadership.
"It's time for results," said Brig. Gen. Michael Talley, Senior Commander of Fort Detrick at a recent town hall. "It's time to stop talking. It's time to stop making promises."
Feedback from residents about concerns and issues while living in Army housing is vital and this is a team effort where we need everyone to play.