Privatized housing improvements

Keith Thompson, Residential Communities Initiative housing manager and inspector, checks the operation of a ceiling fan as part of a pre-move-in inspection Sept. 18 in the Jefferson Terrace neighborhood on Fort Lee. As a result of ongoing improvements to the housing management program, all installation homes now undergo an additional inspection to those performed by the Hunt Communities housing partner.

FORT LEE, Va. – Privatized housing residents here are a lot more satisfied with their living conditions than they were earlier in the year. 

That general observation, made by Housing Division Chief Albert Williams, may be disputed by some, but nobody can argue that the existing sentiment is a far cry from what it was in February when post leaders and Hunt Housing Community partners were pummeled with complaints at a four-and-a-half hour town hall meeting in the Lee Theater. The Army’s top brass had ordered installations to assess the situation after testimony before the Senate’s Armed Services Committee revealed serious deficiencies in living conditions in military quarters.

Installation leaders at the town hall stressed the importance of work orders – the primary tool that would allow them to monitor housing deficiencies and Hunt’s diligence in correcting them, particularly if they were detrimental to life, health and safety. A deluge of several hundred work orders were submitted in the days that followed, and it hasn’t dwindled much six months later.

“We have seen a significant decrease in the life, health and safety work orders on record,” Williams said. “The numbers are down to single digits on a weekly basis.”

Mold and water intrusion issues have garnered the most attention throughout this process, the housing chief further noted. Several key measures – including a sweeping visit of family homes and inspections to barracks areas; an assessment visit by Senator Mark Warner in April; and additional town hall meetings each quarter – have demonstrated the Army’s and government’s commitment to correcting any conditions that could jeopardize the health and safety of its military families. Hunt’s corrective actions include the launch of a mass mold inspection project, with remediation as required. They are focusing on 880 homes during the initial phase of the project, with others to follow as needed.

Also among the corrective actions is the standup of a commander’s hotline (1-804-734-6300), through which residents can get help if they feel quality of life concerns are not being addressed or their home maintenance needs are not being met through the normal work order process.  Furthermore, the installation has hired two civilians and is using borrowed military manpower to perform quality assurance work.

The additional resources, Williams said, yielded not only work order oversight but improvements in the quality of work over the same period of time.

“It was not only the issues identified in March (by the visits), but also the fact our team is out there looking behind the subcontractors, making sure the work is complete and done to standard,” said Williams, also the Residential Communities Initiative asset manager. “So, when residents move in, they have few to zero issues in the home.”

Newly arriving military families moving into housing units were the greatest source of complaints, Williams elaborated.

“Last year at this time, we might have received anywhere from one-to-three complaints a week about homes not being prepared for inbound families,” he said. “Since we’ve had the additional QA on the ground, looking at every single home for maintenance issues, we’ve had people who’ve made comments, but there have been no formal complaints.”

Williams said the reduction is especially noteworthy due to the larger-than-usual turnover rate associated with the summer moving season and the mandated actions – checking every home for problems, for example – directed by the Army as a result of the Senate hearings.  

“It has been a Herculean effort,” he said. “Having the additional workforce and other resources has raised my confidence in our ability to adequately respond to what may occur on the ground.”

Fort Lee, which hosts roughly 10,000 permanent party personnel, covers more than 5,000 acres and counts 1,474 housing units, most of them less than 20 years old.  A larger number of the initial work orders, said Williams, concerned water intrusion issues in some of the older units.

Minor work order issues the Housing Division has dealt with include algae growth on siding. Fort Lee Family Housing maintenance staff has mitigated this problem using golf-cart-equipped cleaning equipment, said Williams.

Residents at the town hall also complained about the lack of communication related to work order status.  To help remedy that problem, Williams said a “RENTCafe” app has been rolled out by the housing partners. It gives residents the capability “to submit routine service orders and track them from the time they’re submitted to completion.” All the resident needs is a cellphone or tablet. They still must call the residential services specialist or maintenance shop for emergency and urgent service orders. Both the app and telephonic communications give the residents an interactive role to address life, health and safety issues and serious concerns of maintenance problems in their homes.

RENTCafe can be downloaded for free through the Apple and Android online app stores.

There also are other efforts to improve communications between the partners and customers, Williams said. For one, the contractors have newly designated personnel to liaise with residents concerning maintenance issues. “I think, starting in October, residents will see a significant improvement in communication between the partner and residents,” he added.

In addition to the stated changes, the housing partners are expected to receive additional funding in October to further their remediation efforts, according to Williams. The eventual target is that every installation home will be checked for health and safety issues.

Lastly, the Fort Lee Family Housing team, coupled with the garrison commander, has established a Community Advisory Board to provide residents with a collective voice to address housing and community issues.  On a voluntary basis, representatives from each community were selected to participate in this new initiative.

 “From an overall perspective, I hope our military families see the effort that is being made to improve military quarters at Fort Lee and assure housing management oversight by installation leaders so serious future problems can hopefully be avoided,” Williams said.

“The commitment by this command has been clearly articulated, and they’re dead set on making this right,” he further noted. “What we need from residents is the understanding that this will take time, and they are part of the solution through engagement (i.e. submitting work orders) and communication with the command if promised repairs are not being completed in the time set by family housing.”