Fort Meade families irked over housing

Rehabs: Picerne Real Estate Group plans to renovate homes at the Army base, starting with vacant ones. But residents feel they've been ignored.

August 23, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

One woman worries about bathing her infant son in a tub pocked with mold and mildew. Another has a tree growing through her living room floor and flies landing in her shower and in her orange juice. A third fears her lone toilet is about to crash through the floor.

In the four months since Picerne Real Estate Group took over management of Fort Meade's housing as part of a $3 billion deal to privatize military housing nationwide, some residents say the Rhode Island company is far slower to fix maintenance problems than the Army ever was.

Many are angry that Picerne is adding amenities, such as miniblinds and ceiling fans, to vacant homes when longtime residents who ask for them are still waiting.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Friday's Sun about housing conditions at Fort Meade incompletely described a tree beneath a house. Sprouts from a tree stump are coming up from a space between the patio and the living room, and the tree appears to be placing pressure on the house's foundation. The article also misstated Kristi Osborne's husband's place of military service. He is a staff sergeant at Fort Meade.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"I understand that they want to get these houses nice, but think about the people who live here now," said Kristi Osborne, a mother of two who is living on the base while her husband serves in Korea. "If my toilet's falling through the ceiling, why go to the vacant house next door and put down carpeting?"

Army officials maintain that Picerne is doing more maintenance work than the Army did when it managed the occupied homes, but they say their priority is to renovate vacant homes.

Picerne spokesman Bill Mulvey said the company is renovating base homes as quickly as it can - about 60 a week, according to the Army - so housing will be ready for families who live off post and want to move back. Mulvey said disgruntled residents should consider the plight of families who live off base on a military housing allowance of about $1,150 a month - a hardship in the pricey Washington suburbs.

"They're getting upgrades," Mulvey said of the base's residents. "But not the same upgrades under the same timing and under the same contract as the vacant houses."

The residents' complaints illustrate the challenge of carrying out Congress' mandate to turn over thousands of military homes nationwide to the private sector. Politicians and military officials have said the plan will upgrade base housing and save money, but it also forces military families to rely on profit-oriented private companies to maintain their homes.

The Army and Picerne acknowledge some bumps along the road to privatization. The Anne Arundel County base is among the first four nationwide to undertake the $3 billion Residential Communities Initiative, which Congress authorized in 1996.

Picerne, which had housing management experience but had done little work with governments, paired with Pittsburgh-based IT Group, a veteran government contractor, to win the Fort Meade bid last year. But by March, IT Group had sought bankruptcy protection and sold its interest in the deal to Picerne.

More recently, government regulators - including the Environmental Protection Agency, which placed the base on its list of hazardous sites in 1998 - have criticized the Army for rushing to close the Picerne deal in May and failing to disclose key environmental studies pertaining to ground-water contamination, landfill activity and solid waste.

In May, the Army transferred about 2,600 homes to Picerne under a 50-year land lease. Picerne will demolish the houses, most of which are about 50 years old, build ones with master bedrooms and carpeting, and manage the community. Construction is set to start next month and will cost about $400 million, which Picerne will finance through base housing allowances, or "rent," that it collects from residents.

It's better than when the Army managed housing and little money came back to the base, said Bruce Hopkins, Fort Meade deputy installation commander. Under the Army, half of Fort Meade's housing allowances paid for Army-wide housing; the rest paid for other functions throughout the Army.

"They are doing triple the amount of maintenance we could do ourselves," Hopkins said. "I would call that a tremendous success."

Picerne inherited more than 4,000 work orders from the Army's Department of Public Works when it took over housing maintenance in May. Each week, it receives about 600 more and has a backlog of nearly 1,000.

Picerne takes in about $2.2 million each month from the 1,949 occupied homes; it will make close to $700,000 more a month when families occupy the 551 vacant homes.

Mulvey acknowledges that residents "can look across the street and see an empty quarters with a ceiling fan, and they don't have one in the house."

"But once they move out" and leave the base, he added, "there's a whole list of things that we will do."

That doesn't sit well with many residents, who complained to Army officials at a community meeting on base this week. The Army closed the meeting to the public and declined The Sun's request to attend. Several who attended characterized the exchange as heated, with soldiers and spouses ticking off problems such as asbestos, smoking outlets and stoves that catch fire.

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