By Franklin FisherFebruary 3, 2020
FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Measures adopted here to ensure Family housing residents get proper maintenance service and that vacant homes are in proper shape before people move in have led to increased resident satisfaction, housing officials said.
That satisfaction is showing up in surveys that ask residents to rate the quality of maintenance work at their homes, and whether when they moved in, the home was in proper condition, said Keith R. Lovejoy, Housing Division chief with U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning's Directorate of Public Works (DPW).
Fort Benning oversees more than 4,000 Family homes, which are managed day to day by a private company, The Villages of Benning.
The Villages of Benning began sending the surveys to residents in March 2019, Lovejoy said.
"So, March 2019, the property manager started sending out these instant surveys where they could go on and rate their experiences and get feedback on work orders and move-in experiences," Lovejoy said.
Based on the most recent survey results, 84 percent of residents who responded rated maintenance service "good or better," he said.
On the quality of their "move-in" experience, 93 percent of respondents rated it "good or better," he said.
That's a big change from a year and more ago, said Lovejoy, before Fort Benning in early fall of 2018 launched a major drive to improve housing services.
That overall effort, which remains underway, has included hiring more maintenance crews and housing inspectors, and adoption of stringent standards for repairs and inspections, and - crucially, officials here say - the practice of directly phoning residents to ask if they believe they received proper service on maintenance calls.
Prior to those changes, newly moved-in residents would report numerous deficiencies needing maintenance work, Lovejoy said.
"Multiple work orders they had to call in, and it could take up to 30 days to get fixed. They weren't happy with their move-in experience," he said.
But the broad effort to improve services has been showing signs of steady improvement, and officials believe two things especially account for the recent favorable satisfaction ratings: the improved inspections, and a system of phone calls in which housing staff check resident satisfaction with service on their work orders.
In the area of housing inspections, the Army last March directed that 100 percent of homes slated for new tenants undergo meticulous inspection and repair so they're deficiency-free before new occupants are allowed to move in, Lovejoy said.
"One hundred percent of all homes are inspected prior to any resident being allowed to move into that set of quarters," he said.
Such inspections became possible after Fort Benning, as part of its overall housing improvement initiative, increased staff. The Villages of Benning hired eight more maintenance workers among other new staff, and USAG Fort Benning hired four housing inspectors.
Inspections must be thorough and repair work must not be merely superficial "band aid" fixes but must extend to the root causes and fix those too, Lovejoy said.
From March 2019, when the 100 percent inspections policy started, through mid-January, Fort Benning's housing staff has inspected 1,184 homes prior to residents moving in, he said.
A second big factor in the increased customer satisfaction is the system of phone calls that are now made directly to residents to check the outcome of their maintenance requests.
"There's now a system in place," said Lovejoy. "If the resident is at home when the work order is finished, they're given a paper to sign to that effect.
"But if they're not at home at that time, Villages of Benning calls them to ask if they agree that the work was done properly and completely," said Denise Milton-Runnels, USAG Fort Benning's deputy housing chief.
"The dispatcher," said Lovejoy, "will call you up and say, 'Did your work order get completed?' before she closes out the system. And if they don't hear back from them within 24 hours, they close the work order out."
But Fort Benning's housing office makes its own follow-up calls to residents to see if residents are satisfied with the outcome of work orders.
"We're also calling back," said Milton-Runnels.
"So let's say it's closed out and they say they're happy," she said. "We don't know that. So we still have our people call, to ensure that they're satisfied. So that's outside of what Villages of Benning is doing. Whether it has a signature, whether or not The Villages received a phone call, or whatever. 'Trust but verify.' We verify."
The housing office makes those calls to tenants on 100 percent of maintenance work orders that were considered "emergencies" or "urgents," and they also make such calls to 5 percent of those considered "routines."
If residents tell the housing office they were not satisfied with maintenance work, officials tell The Villages of Benning managers of the uncorrected problem, Lovejoy said.
From May 2019 through Jan. 13, the housing staff has made 6,897 of the follow-up calls "checking with residents on their satisfaction with work orders," he said.
"No one was ever checking up to make sure that the work orders were being done to standard," he said. "Did they complete the work to your residents' satisfaction? And now, by us calling them back, we actually are able to figure out what the quality was. Is the resident satisfied? Did they fix what they said they were gonna fix?
"If they didn't," said Lovejoy, "we can force the property manager to go back and fix it, and when they fix it then we're going to call the resident again, to make sure that it was properly satisfied and fixed the way that they expect it to be fixed - not just a band aid but get to the root of the issue.
"So," he said, "the process is getting better, the inspections are getting better, and the response to getting any issues fixed is getting better.
"And I personally believe it has a lot to do with both work order callbacks to make sure residents are satisfied, and the property manager knowing that somebody's going to be calling these residents to check on the satisfaction," said Lovejoy.
"And also, before anybody moves into the quarters, they're getting 100 percent inspection by garrison employees," he said.
"We think this is a correlation to the callbacks, the inspections, the making sure that the property managers are doing what they say they were going to do and trying to get to root causes instead of putting band aids on things, Lovejoy said.
"We weren't able to do that before because we didn't have anybody to do it.," he said. "So now we can hold the property manager accountable for all their work. Both work orders and move-ins.
"So I think we're definitely moving in the right direction," said Lovejoy. "The bar's been raised across the board. We're still not there, but we're gonna continue to get better every day."