Fear of backlash is one thing that keeps military members and their families from speaking up about housing problems, like mold and poor maintenance. That’s according to a recent study by the non-profit Military Family Advisory Network. But locally, there’s an effort to move past that fear.
Samantha Keller is married to her high school sweetheart, Major Ryan Keller of the United States Marine Corps. They moved to Monterey about two years ago when he was stationed at the Naval Postgraduate School.
The Kellers decided to live on base at The Parks’ La Mesa Village. It’s a housing complex primarily for the military. They picked their first home because it had a large yard for their three kids to play in. But the home ended up having problems.
Samantha peeks through a window into that former home. Sheets of plastic cover the floor and the back wall. Her family’s belongings are still inside.
“You see all my children's books when you look in there. Our wedding albums are right there,” says Keller.
When the Kellers moved in, they noticed yellow and brown stains on the living room walls. Overtime, the discoloration got worse and the baseboards started to swell.
They reported the problems to The Parks, which is run by Michaels Management. It’s a private company that manages this and other military housing complexes across the country. The company did not want to discuss the Kellers’ problem for this story.
Back in 1996, Congress privatized on-base military housing. One goal was to improve the quality of the homes. But today, pests, lead and mold are just some of the problems reported by military families.
Keller says management responded to their problems by bringing in a small dehumidifier, replacing part of the baseboard and painting over the rest of the stains. But that didn’t solve the issue.
“It was difficult in the beginning because I didn't know the right person to go talk to and we were a little nervous about possible backlash for my husband, for myself,” Keller says.
She suspected the problem was mold. Her family was sick. Keller says her husband had trouble concentrating in school and her youngest daughter stopped growing.
So, she spoke up at a Town Hall meeting for the military community. That’s where she met a group of military spouses who help each other deal with housing issues.
Genevieve Larsen coordinates the group.
“I can't actually go fix anybody's mold. I can't actually go fix anybody's dog off their leash, or trash in their neighbor's yard or whatever it is that they are struggling with. But they can fix it themselves. And I'm here to empower them with the knowledge and the resources they need,” says Larsen.
The group is called the Monterey Bay Military Housing Mayoral Program. It has 70 members. Some act as unofficial mayors for their neighborhoods. The Army created the program but doesn’t track how many groups there are.
“These groups I think are so valuable because we are just volunteers. We're just other residents. And so we're not a chain of command,” says Larsen.
Larsen also lives in The Parks, at their Seaside housing complex on the former Fort Ord. Sitting on her couch, she scrolls through her phone. The group uses Facebook to coordinate meetings, share information and send complaints.
“People can say things in these protected groups where they can ask questions that they might feel dumb asking in other places,” Larsen says.
Larsen takes those questions to Colonel Gregory Ford. He’s the Garrison Commander for the Presidio of Monterey. He sees to the support and safety or residents and students.
“So what you'll see is military members and their families are so used to dealing with hardship, we accept it. I can't have them accept that. That is, they should not suffer in silence. They need to let us know what's going on,” says Colonel Ford.
He says the Mayoral Program volunteers give him a better understanding of what’s happening in the neighborhoods.
“The reason I look at it very carefully is it goes to readiness. If a service member is focused on my house isn't safe, my family's not safe, they can't do their military mission,” Colonel Ford says.
For many local military members, the mission is to learn. Whether that’s a foreign language, or like in the case of Samantha Keller’s husband, getting a master’s degree in computer science.
She says since he had to deal with their housing problems, he missed a lot of class time at the Naval Postgraduate School.
“Unfortunately because he had to take so much time off from school to address the housing issues and to take care of his family that he isn't graduating in June it was decided to be the best interest would be to extend him till September,” says Keller.
Keller says Garrison Commander Colonel Ford became an advocate for her family. She says that’s when the maintenance staff opened the walls and found water damage and mold throughout the home.
The Kellers were moved to a new home in The Parks. Still, they lost most of their belongings to the mold contamination.
Standing in front of her old home, Keller points out rocks painted by her three kids that are still in the front yard.
“It took us a long time to get over the shock and to get over is, is this really happening to us? Is this really what we were living in? I mean it's still shocking to still stand here and see wall after a wall of plastic,” says Keller.
Today, the mold in her old house has been removed, but work still needs to be done to keep it from coming back. Until then, no one will live there.