For the last six months, Breanna Bragg’s family has been displaced because of problems with mold and sewage at their Fort Belvoir home in Virginia.
Bragg’s husband is in the Army, and they have two kids ages two and seven.
We obtained records showing multiple inspections that found “actual mold growth” in the bathrooms and dining room.
In October, an inspector determined the home was “uninhabitable due to cross contamination of suspected fungal growth, the presence of black water (sewage) in the home, and pest control.”
Bragg said the hardest part was when her 7-year-old daughter said she didn’t want to be at home anymore.
“She said, ‘You know mommy, school is fun, because school is my safe place now because home isn’t safe. Our home, it has mold everywhere,’ and as a mom that broke me,” said Bragg.
The Braggs were placed in a temporary home while work was being done to repair their home.
After going through the dispute resolution process, Bragg said her family rejected a settlement offer that would have required them to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) prohibiting them from discussing their experience.
We obtained a copy of an unconditional release agreement from the Michaels Organization, which operates housing on Fort Belvoir, that said the parties shall not discuss “the alleged claims or make negative statements related to or concerning Fort Belvoir housing or military housing in general, to the public (including but not limited to current, future, or former residents at Fort Belvoir), the press, on social media, or with any other media outlet.”
“It’s hush money,” said Bragg. “It’s we put you in a moldy and unsafe house. If you want us to remediate your things, take pennies and shut up.”
A spokesperson for the Michaels Organization said the “standard settlement confidentiality terms comply with the National Defense Authorization Act. Confidentiality in settlement discussions encourages open and transparent communications between the parties and generally leads to an amicable resolution of all concerns.”
Bragg said the settlement offer from the Michaels Organization was for $5,000 and communication we obtained with the housing company reflected that amount.
A spokesperson for the Michaels Organization said that allowance was for cleaning household goods and that it was one part of the total settlement, but would not provide further information about the total amount of the settlement offer.
Bragg provided us with an independent estimate showing the cost to clean and move their contaminated items would be more than $18,000, plus another $15,000 for mold cleaning.
According to the formal dispute resolution case details and decision, the military sided with the housing company about how it handled addressing the housing issues.
“Owner has complied with the duties and responsibilities under the lease agreement and is not obligated to conduct additional remediation within the premises, to relocate Tenant, to fund moving costs, or allow early termination of the lease,” the ruling said.
A spokesperson for the Army Installation Management Command said the Army is focused on maintaining “consistent communication and support for the Braggs as they move to their next duty station.”
The Army also said if a tenant is unsatisfied with the result of a formal dispute resolution process, they can pursue litigation through the civil court system.
We’ve told you how Bragg’s experience is not an isolated case.
The Michaels Organization is being sued by other residents over similar housing problems.
It’s also not the only housing company that operates homes on military bases that has been under fire.
A bipartisan Senate investigation exposed mistreatment at homes run by other private companies on bases in Georgia and Texas.
“I blame the Army at this point,” said Bragg. “You’re allowing the housing company to do what they’ve done.”
Senators React to Use of NDAs
Our Washington News Bureau contacted every member of the Senate Armed Services Committee to find out if the lawmakers are aware of housing companies using NDAs and whether they support the practice.
We provided the lawmakers with language from the unconditional release agreement.
“This is unacceptable,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Landlords need to do better and the Senate will continue working on a bipartisan basis to hold them accountable and ensure military families are treated fairly and have access to high-quality housing.”
In a statement, Ranking Member Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said: “The FY20 NDAA specifically restricted the use of non-disclosure agreements in connection with entering into, continuing, or terminating a lease unless it is part of the settlement of litigation. I would urge any families that feel like they are being pressured into signing non-disclosure agreements that run afoul of the law to notify both their government housing representative and chain of command.”
A spokesperson for Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) said: “Senator Tillis has worked with his colleagues in a bipartisan manner to institute a Tenant’s Bill of Rights aimed in part to stop the use of NDAs to hide significant housing issues. It’s disappointing that certain actors are finding ways to circumvent existing laws and continue to use NDAs, and it’s clear continued oversight and accountability are needed to reduce the need for legal action and ultimately improve the relationship between tenants and housing providers.”
Both U.S. Senators from Virginia, who represent Fort Belvoir, told our Washington News Bureau they are looking into concerns about these housing companies that use NDAs.
“We have heard from families regarding this alleged practice and are engaged with both the Army and DoD more broadly on this issue. Senators Warner and Kaine have strongly supported the congressionally-directed military housing reforms that resulted in the Department of Defense’s Tenant Bill of Rights and are committed to ensuring all families in military housing receive the treatment and the housing they deserve. Congress has been very clear in establishing the need for oversight into privatized housing, and communications with residents have been critical in that process. It is vital that tenants have the continued ability to raise concerns,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) in a joint statement.
Bragg, meantime, is standing by her decision to reject the offer to sign away her rights to speak publicly about her experience.
“I will take it so I can scream from the rooftops about what they’re doing to our families,” said Bragg.
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