By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
For the past five months, the carpet in Jenna Torres’ home on Maxwell Air Force Base has needed replacing. A water leak in late June soaked it, and when that leak wasn’t properly fixed, it was soaked again in July. Now, five months later, the moldy, smelly carpet remains.
A few streets away, Sarah Privitar and her husband, who has served in the Air Force going on two decades, have essentially given up on getting anything more than basic repairs fixed at their house on Maxwell.
These are not abnormal experiences for families residing on the base.
A check of the Maxwell Family Housing Facebook page finds disgruntled message after disgruntled message in the reviews section.
“This is by far the worst place we’ve lived,” Privitar said. “The response to the residents here is ridiculous. We’ve talked to our neighbors and friends – it’s not just us.”
That much has been made abundantly clear to the object of those complaints – the Hunt Companies, which is in the ninth year of a 50-year, $285 million base housing management contract. Hunt acknowledged its failures over the summer and has told military officials and some Congressmen who have inquired about the matter that it has vastly improved and corrected many problems.
However, that hasn’t been the case for many at Maxwell. For this story, APR spoke to several airmen and their spouses. Many wished to remain anonymous, but several also spoke on the record and have left their public comments on the Maxwell Family Housing page for all to see.
Instead of an actual fix, the Maxwell families said they see a temporary patch meant to appear that Hunt is correcting the problems, when in reality it has only hired several low-wage workers who lack the skills necessary to do the basic maintenance work the airmen are promised when they fork over their entire housing allowance each month.
“Let me tell you how bad it is,” Torres begins. “The weather stripping had come off my door. I called them – several times. The guy finally came out – he was a young guy who I’d never seen before. He clearly didn’t know what he was doing. He ended up stapling a bunch of Styrofoam to my door facing. That’s what we’re dealing with here.”
How We Got Here
In 2007, a division of Hunt Companies, Hunt Development Group, joined with Pinnacle AMS Development Company to form Pinnacle Hunt Communities, and won one of several private contracts awarded by the Department of Defense. The contract was part of an initiative to privatize base housing – a move the Bush administration promised would save the DoD millions annually.
The contracts, particularly the one awarded to Pinnacle Hunt, were staggering in length, giving the company control of base housing for a half-century and more than a quarter-billion dollars. In addition, they awarded the company control of housing that was almost guaranteed to be occupied.
However, there were a few downsides. Pinnacle Hunt would be responsible for managing some houses that were deemed historical structures, particularly on the Maxwell base where m
ore than 170 historic homes are in operation. The older homes are in need of nearly constant repairs and updating, and they often require experienced maintenance personnel, and often require maintenance from off-base service providers.
According to the contracts that airmen and their families enter into for housing, once they sign over their full housing allowance for on-base housing, they aren’t responsible for any repairs. Everything from changing light bulbs and AC filters to replacing broken heating units and repairing water leaks is covered by the maintenance contract on the house.
“We’re supposed to pick up a phone, place a call and get a maintenance person out,” Torres said. “Obviously, the urgency of the call makes a difference, and I honestly don’t think many people were being unrealistic with their complaints. We were waiting weeks at a time, and sometimes the calls were never answered.”
Earlier this year, following an onslaught of complaints that finally reached the top-level generals and politicians, Pinnacle Hunt and the Maxwell Family Housing group acknowledged its errors and blamed the problems on declining personnel and the inability of the company to fill several key positions.
Among those voicing complaints was Alabama Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, who serves as chairwoman of Alabama’s Military Stability Commission. Ivey wrote a letter in September to Air Force Secretary Deborah James in which she called the housing conditions at Maxwell “unacceptable” and said it threatened the morale and readiness of the troops.
In response, the assistant secretary wrote to Ivey in early October and acknowledged the problems, vowed that the secretary’s office would be involved to fix them and informed Ivey that the management team at Maxwell had already been replaced.
In addition to Ivey’s complaints, Rep. Martha Roby also broached the issue with Gen. David Goldfien, the Air Force Chief of Staff, when they met at her office in November. A spokesman for Roby said the general made it clear that correcting the housing issues at Maxwell was a priority.
In a statement issued to APR, in which a company spokesperson answered a number of questions, the company again acknowledged past problems but said its new management team and added personnel were already making a difference.
“Maxwell Family Housing has made some mistakes in the past,” said Cindy Gersch, the vice president of communications for Hunt Companies. “We are working extremely hard to remedy issues and continue to make improvements. We are proud of the changes taking place at Maxwell, including all of our new staff and new policies. We still have some work to do, but we continue to move in the right direction and the feedback received to date has been positive.”
Gersch also noted that since the new hires have been made and new team put in place, the response times have fallen and there are now fewer complaints at Maxwell.
The airmen and families who spoke with APR were in complete agreement with Gersch on a few matters. They said that response times are much better, that the new management team is much more responsive to complaints and that some repairs are getting done faster.
Where they differ, however, is on the quality of the repairs and the overall responsiveness.
Privitar said she still hasn’t received service for some of her repairs that have been lingering since the summer.
“I’ve basically given up on those,” she said. “I will say that at least someone responds to your calls now. They usually can’t fix what you need fixed, but at least they show up.
“It seems like they just went out and hired a bunch of people to fill the positions and make it seem like they’re doing more. These guys don’t appear to be very qualified.”
Gersch said that all of the personnel hired at Maxwell went through a “rigorous training and screening process,” but she didn’t say if maintenance skills or holding certifications were required.
Torres, Privitar and two residents who asked to remain anonymous said they’ve found that the maintenance staff is reluctant to call for off-base repairmen to fix issues, even when it is obvious that the Maxwell staff lacks the expertise and tools to do the job.
For example, one of the residents said they experienced problems with the air conditioner at their home in the fall. Maintenance workers from the base made at least three trips to the home over a period of a two months, never managed to repair the issue and eventually was forced to call an AC repair service. The off-base repairmen told the family the wrong part had been installed, leading to the continued problems.
“It seems like a money issue – that they don’t want to spend the money to pay for those repairmen,” said Torres, who has experienced similar issues with her leaking pipes. “In fact, all of this seems like money issues. But we pay a lot for these services. Our monthly housing allowance is $1,100 and it’s one of the lowest (allowances on base).”
It could become a serious issue for Pinnacle Hunt and Maxwell. Roby’s office said the Congresswoman is considering making on-base housing an issue during the upcoming Fiscal Year 2018 budget negotiations. Roby sits on the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, which has oversight of on-base construction.
But the damage has been done as far as the Maxwell families are concerned.
“I’ll never stay on another base run by Hunt,” Privitar said. “We’ve lived on several, including overseas, and this is by far the worst that we’ve experienced. We’ll never do it again.”