When Raven Roman moved to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, with her husband, Jorge, an officer who has served in the U.S. Army for more than 18 years, she expected the house they rented from The Michaels Organization to be safe and updated.
Instead, when she moved her three young children into the house at 5200 Stable Court, which Michaels manages as a private military housing contractor on the 8,700-acre Army base, carpenter ants had moved in first, entering the home from multiple points. Slugs started to appear under the kitchen sink, and the carpet she was told was freshly installed sported thumbtacks, rusty nails and ramen noodles, she said.
Courtesy of Raven Roman
The Roman family at Fort Belvoir: Chief Warrant Officer Jorge Roman and Camila, Alena, Raven and Sophia Roman.
In the months after Roman moved into the house in May 2018, she and her daughters, ages 12, 4 and 1 at the time, began experiencing a variety of health issues related to mold contamination, including rashes, coughs and fatigue, she said. The problem got so bad that months later, when Jorge Roman was called off-base, Raven checked her family into a hotel nearby and requested to be moved out of the home.
“I felt homeless. My family was homeless at that point,” Roman told Bisnow. “How could any military family get to a point where they are in that position?”
After bouncing around houses near Fort Belvoir, pleading with Michaels for repairs and remediation and asking officials on the base for help, Roman filed a lawsuit on March 16 of this year, alleging the owner and manager of thousands of housing units on the base allowed safety hazards and other substandard conditions to persist for years.
Roman filed the class-action suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, claiming that Michaels and Clark Realty Capital, which developed and was the longtime owner of 2,154 private housing units at Fort Belvoir, violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act and breached the terms of leases with thousands of military families.
Fort Belvoir, along the Potomac River just south of Mount Vernon, is the largest military base near the nation’s capital.
The lawsuit is one of many that have been filed against private military housing providers across the country alleging conditions that harmed the health and well-being of service members and their families.
“These service members are subjected to these horrific conditions,” said Joe Langone, an attorney representing the families. “It’s across the board.”
The Romans and co-plaintiffs Navy Chief Petty Officer John Fischer and his wife, Ashley, are seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as rent abatements for the time they claimed Michaels and Clark weren’t fulfilling their obligations as landlords. Roman said they filed a class-action suit to try to get financial relief for families who might be afraid to speak out against their landlord.
Roman has been working with other families living at the Villages at Belvoir to try to improve their living conditions since 2019, when she started a group called the Belvoir Housing Advocacy Group, which Ashley Fischer is also on the board of. That year, the group threw a Christmas party with partner organizations, hosting dozens of children and their families who had been displaced by poor housing conditions.
“Looking back on that now, for me to have had such serious issues and not had them addressed or at least taken seriously, at the point at which my family was, I can’t imagine what other families may have gone through and had similar or worse issues,” Roman said.
Clark Realty developed many of the homes at Fort Belvoir after signing a ground lease with the Department of Defense in 2003, and Michaels has been managing the properties for at least the last five years. Last year, Clark Realty sold its interest in all military housing properties, including Fort Belvoir, to Michaels. Both firms declined to comment on the lawsuit when contacted by Bisnow.
It is just the latest in a long line of legal actions surrounding the privately run housing at Fort Belvoir. In 2016, the former property manager of the housing agreed to pay over $1.6M to resolve a Department of Justice investigation into insurance fraud, in which DOJ prosecutors claimed the government and Clark Realty were victimized. A maintenance supervisor was sentenced to prison on charges he participated in a kickback scheme.
The Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse, which hosts the Alexandria division of the U.S. District Court’s Eastern District of Virginia.
Following its acquisition of Clark Realty’s assets at Fort Belvoir last year, Michaels said it had made immediate changes to speed up its response to maintenance requests and codify the dispute resolution process recently enacted by Congress.
A senior Army official told the Military Times in October the sale would “work out well” because Michaels was already the property manager for the Villages at Belvoir. Army officials had previously acknowledged major mold issues and said they pressured Clark Realty to get out of the business as a result. The base set up an emergency operations center to help relocate families and direct repairs after Congress began scrutinizing conditions, InsideNoVa reported.
The class-action lawsuit is similar to a 2020 complaint in which another couple that lived at Fort Belvoir sued Clark Realty and Michaels, alleging gross negligence, breach of contract, fraud and other charges. That case is still pending — in January, Federal District Court Judge Liam O’Grady ruled against the real estate companies in their motion to dismiss the suit.
A Systemic Failure
The lawsuits have been filed as multiple federal investigations have led to sweeping reforms and criminal penalties. The DOJ fined Balfour Beatty Communities $65M in December for falsifying records related to upkeep and maintenance. In January, another military housing contractor, Hunt Cos., paid $500K to settle a case with similar allegations at Dover Air Force Base without admitting any fault.
Congress has been working on ways to improve oversight and accountability for private military housing since 2019. After affected families and the heads of several private military housing providers testified before Congress, a military housing “Tenants’ Bill of Rights” was enacted in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act and expanded the following year.
The bill of rights required private military housing to meet environmental and health standards and spelled out a dispute resolution process for tenants to get repairs when their on-base landlord fails to adequately maintain their home, including allowing tenants to withhold rent payments.
Rep. John Garamendi presides over a joint hearing between the House Armed Services Subcommittees on Readiness and Military Personnel to address privatized military housing reforms on March 10, 2021.
The scrutiny from lawmakers came after conditions at some bases became so widespread that families began to organize and share their stories en masse. In one example, nearly half of new homes built at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma had “gushing leaks, raw sewage backups, rotten wood and severe mold,” according to a Reuters investigation from June 2019.
As lawmakers ratcheted up oversight of military housing, Clark Realty drew their ire. In 2021, the landlord didn’t participate in a House Armed Services Committee hearing with other large housing contractors Balfour Beatty, Lendlease Americas and the Corvias Group, prompting the readiness subcommittee chairman, Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat from California, to threaten to “sashay down” the Potomac River and visit Fort Belvoir with little notice.
Clark’s no-show performance also prompted Rep. Jackie Speier, another California Democrat and chair of the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Military Personnel, to warn the company: “You can run but you can’t hide.”
Speier has also advocated a change that would allow the DOD to terminate the 50-year leases given to private military housing providers if they fail to properly maintain their properties.
“They have a guaranteed income from the [military’s basic allowance for housing] that they receive from each service member,” Speier said last year, Stars & Stripes reported. “If I had my druthers right now, I would terminate that contract.”
Navigating Troubled Housing
The Roman family moved to this house, 5200 Stable Court, in May 2018. This photo is dated September 2014.
Roman said the mold contamination in her house in Fort Belvoir was so widespread that she was forced to discard many of her personal belongings, including her wedding album, children’s books and awards, clothes and furniture. Roman said she had to quit her job to take care of her children’s health issues.
According to email correspondence shared with Bisnow, after Roman told her property manager she no longer felt safe in her home and requested a move, a Michaels representative said in an email, “At this time, we have not identified any concerns in your home that would prevent you from staying in the home.”
It wasn’t until after Roman’s husband emailed his commanding officers asking for assistance that Michaels changed its tune. Shortly thereafter, a Villages at Belvoir representative sent Roman a letter, reviewed by Bisnow, notifying her it would be changing the locks to her home to perform the repairs.
Before she was moved out, Roman took a sample of the black wall behind her dishwasher and sent it to a lab in South Carolina. The lab’s results, which Roman shared with Bisnow, showed the sample tested positive for Stachybotrys, a fungus that can produce poisonous toxins.
Courtesy of Raven Roman
Images of the wall behind the dishwasher in the Romans’ 5200 Stable Court home. Raven Roman said she used a knife to scrape a sample from the wall in the presence of Army officials.
“That home should have never been offered to any family, period,” Roman said. “They should not have offered that home to anyone because there were so many things wrong with it.”
Eventually, Roman’s family moved to another home managed by Michaels, where she said she experienced more issues with repairs and pests. A year after Roman checked her family into a hotel, and 16 months after moving to Fort Belvoir, the family finally moved off-base to Lorton, Virginia, in September 2019.
Roman is still involved with the Belvoir Housing Advocacy Group and hopes many of the families she works with will join her class-action suit. Otherwise, she said she doubts they will be compensated for years of living in poorly run, unsafe privately owned military housing. It took Roman some time to realize hers wasn’t the only family at the Villages at Belvoir living in substandard housing.
“A lot of the families that come to these installations will receive an offer letter for these homes, and many of them will rent these homes sight unseen,” Roman said. “You never think that you’re going to be in a position where you’re not safe in your home on an installation. It’s crazy.”
Last year, the Army transferred Jorge Roman to a new post in North Carolina — the family now lives near Fort Bragg in off-base housing.
“After what we experienced,” she wrote in an email, “we would never choose to live on another military installation again.”