"I just want everyone to know who Matthew LaPlante is...
Matthew LaPlante isn't a journalist. He's out to hurt you... I believe this man is an ideologue who's out to hurt you, and he shouldn't be working in any major newspaper."
- Bill O'Reilly



AGAINST THE WALL

Sickened military families face indifference of private housing contractor

By Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune
April 20, 2007

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — The stack of medical records for Katie Malek's two toddlers is an inch thick and growing. Mike Smith never missed a day of work before moving his family to a home on this sprawling northern Utah base, but has suffered from a slew of illnesses ever since. And when Amanda Scott puts her son to bed, she watches in tears as he coughs and wheezes his way to sleep.

At least a dozen families at Hill Air Force Base have reported infections, allergies and respiratory illnesses they believe to have been caused or aggravated by mold in their on-base homes. But some of the affected families told The Salt Lake Tribune their efforts to find help and obtain answers have been stymied - particularly by the private contractor to whom the Air Force ceded control of its residential properties in 2005.

Officials at Boyer Hill Military Housing, which now owns the more than 1,100 base residences, have denied the claims - and even suggested the families are lying in order to obtain better homes on base. Boyer manager Dave Anderson said he takes pride in providing quality housing to Hill's airmen and their families.

"Our goal here is to take care of our residents," he said.

A lawsuit pending in Utah's 3rd District Court charges otherwise. Nationwide Management Corporation, which formerly managed the base residences for Boyer, has claimed its efforts to improve the "deplorable" living conditions at Hill were thwarted when costs began biting into Boyer's "grossly overstated" revenue projections.

And mold, the suit suggests, may only be a symptom of a badly neglected housing system.

'We can't wait to get out'
The tiny blond toddlers balancing in Katie Malek's arms have spent a lot of time in the hospital over the past year.
Malek suspected her daughters' ailments - including sinus infections, croup and pneumonia - were being caused by mold at her home. But she said officials from Boyer refused to have her quarters examined. So in February, Malek hired a private inspector. The test cost the enlisted Air Force family $250.

The inspection reports, provided to The Tribune for review, show Malek's home contains "problem" levels of two potentially toxic spores - at nearly three times the rate found just outside her front door. Inspectors say Utahns should generally expect to find equivalent levels inside and out.

University of Utah immunologist and former Mayo Foundation investigator Gerald Gleich told The Tribune many of the symptoms described by the Malek family, and others on base, are consistent with exposure to the penicillium and aspergillus molds found at the Malek home, although not having examined the individuals, he couldn't speak specifically to their cases.

But Anderson, the Boyer manager, said he has seen enough. Having toured the Malek home and found no source of moisture, a prerequisite for mold growth, he is confident there is no mold in the house. And the way he sees it, the inspection reports "don't show any mold problem at all."

"I'd have no problem living in that house," said Anderson, an Army veteran who said he "spent years" in base housing. Anderson retired from the Army in 2004 as a colonel.

Boyer is building new homes at Hill. And Anderson accused the families who have reported health problems of "using that to try to get a new house" on base.

Malek scoffs at that contention. She is moving all right, but to a home off base, on May 15.

"We're actually going to be paying off our lease through the end of that month, so we'll have a few weeks of overlapping payments," she said. "But we can't wait to get out."

Malek is angry Boyer wouldn't terminate her lease when she reported that her children were growing ill - a charge repeated by several other families.

"Those who have fulfilled the commitment of their leases are welcome to move," Anderson confirmed, but in the meantime, he said, ''I'm stuck providing them a home. We both signed a lease.'' Stuck? Malek was incredulous.

"We were stuck," she said, "in a house that was making us sick."

'Things got really bad'
Shortly after moving into her home on base last April, Amanda Scott noticed her 5-year-old son's asthma had worsened.

"We were having to use his inhaler all the time, he was on five different medicines and he was wheezing when he went to bed at night," she said.

When summer came, Scott turned on the swamp cooler - "and then things got really bad."

At the time, Scott said, she had little trouble getting workers from base housing, then under Nationwide's management, to respond to her calls for help. "They came out and cleaned the swamp coolers and the heat ducts pretty much right away," Scott said.

Meanwhile, the family borrowed an air purifier from a friend and, on the advice of their doctor, put dust mite covers on the boy's mattress and pillows.

When those steps failed to alleviate Dakota Scott's asthma, Air Force pediatrician Marcus Luce sought help from base housing.

"Mold is the culprit," Luce wrote in October. "The family will need to be relocated to help control this escalating problem."

Despite the doctor's pleas, Scott said she was told her family would have to wait until their lease ended, six months later, to get on the waiting list for a new home. In the meantime, Scott said, Boyer officials told her that she had the option of moving off of base - so long as she agreed to continue paying $800 a month in rent if her vacated home was not immediately filled.

"My son was sick and it seemed like all they wanted was to get another few months of rent out of us," she said.
Scott's lease finally ended last week. But when she went to apply for a transfer to another home, she said, she was told her family won't even be placed on a waiting list for one of the newer homes, which are larger, unless she has more children.

Scott says she'll speak to her husband - who is currently deployed out of state - about moving off base when he returns.

"I'm not going to go through another summer of what Dakota went through last year," Scott said.

Meanwhile, Luce - who drafted similar letters on behalf of at least 10 families - has been told he can no longer unilaterally write base housing officials seeking new quarters for sick residents.

Hill's chief of medical staff, Lt. Col. James Bennion, said Luce wasn't qualified to make the diagnoses he was making without first seeing an assessment of the conditions of the home.

Bennion said Luce should have "recommended that the patient contact a manager at Boyer Hill and address the issue there, as Boyer Hill would be the one in power to arrange for that assessment."

If Boyer doesn't act? Bennion had no answer.

'Infection after infection'
Mike Smith wasn't used to being sick.

"I was always the kid in school who got the award for perfect attendance," said Smith, an Air Force electrician who said he has suffered from near-constant respiratory illnesses since moving into his home at Hill. "Now I was having infection after infection."

In February, Smith had his tonsils and adenoids removed. The month before, his 2-year-old daughter, Jaelynn, had the same surgery.

Smith thinks many of the problems he and his family have been experiencing are being caused by the shadowy splotches he has found behind his couch, in his closets and around his air vents.

Smith - who lives in the duplex apartment adjoining Katie Malek's home - said the only time his family feels healthy is when they leave their home for vacation. A recent trip to Michigan, for instance, "was a welcome relief from the feeling we get, every time we walk into our home.. . .

"It's a feeling like walking into a brick wall."

Smith said Boyer officials don't seem to believe him - and won't even bother to come to his house to check on his claims.

"They keep on saying there is no problem, that it's all in our head," he said.

His wife, Andrea Smith, said Anderson threatened to sue her "for making false accusations," then hung up on her during a recent phone call about the mold problems.

"They've treated us very poorly," she said.

Anderson denied those claims.

Watching Jaelynn play on her front lawn, Andrea Smith laughed at how the mold issue has made other problems with her home seem "not so bad."

"There's always been this smell of gas," she says, gesturing toward the gas line leading into the home. "You can smell it as you come up the walk."

Smith said she's been calling Boyer about that problem for months. They finally came out to address the problem last week.

'Deplorable condition'
By all accounts, the relationship between Boyer and Nationwide Management - its former property manager - began amicably, with the two Salt Lake City-based companies working together on a bid that ultimately granted Boyer a 50-year right to collect rent from Hill's on-base families.

But when the two firms parted ways, last October, Nationwide's managers believed they had been cheated out of more than $1.6 million in property management fees.

And that's when the laundry began to air.

With overtones of a recent housing controversy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the suit contends many of the housing units at Hill:
• Are "in deplorable condition" from years of neglect.
• Have been poorly maintained, particularly those units assigned to enlisted personnel.
• Have been lacking properly working appliances, including swamp coolers, refrigerators, furnaces and dishwashers.

The suit doesn't mention mold issues. But Nationwide president Drew Pearson said he wasn't surprised by the claims of residents that Boyer officials have been unresponsive to that concern, "especially because one of their parting comments to us was that we completed maintenance calls from residents too fast."

Pearson did acknowledge that many problems he encountered while managing the Hill properties preceded Boyer's 2005 acquisition of base housing. But he thinks Boyer - which had no experience managing large housing projects and didn't do a unit-by-unit inspection before bidding for the job at Hill - simply wasn't prepared to handle the work.

"Property management isn't an easy job," said Pearson, a 30-year veteran of the game. "It's dirty work and it's expensive. And if you're not ready for those things, you simply shouldn't get involved."

Boyer Hill director Mark Pace would not answer questions about the suit.

In court documents, Boyer explained the decision to terminate its relationship with the decades-old property management company came, in part, because Nationwide didn't "stay within the established budget" for repairs it was making to the run-down residences.

Though Hill officials technically have oversight over Boyer's management of base housing, a commander who oversees that supervision said his ability to respond to the complaints is limited.

"These homes no longer belong to the U.S. government," said Col. Harry Briesmaster. "We've given these homes to Boyer Hill Military Housing . . . they are the landlord. They're the primary owners."

As such, he said, disputes between Boyer and its tenants are "no different than the other 1,000 airmen who live off the base" and thus any airman with a complaint could take his grievance "through civil law."

Briesmaster said he would look into any problem he decided was "systemic."

But at this point, Andrea Smith said, she won't be holding her breath - except for when she is cleaning mold from her walls.