Standing on his front porch, with a notebook full of notes he and his wife had made about their home, Staff Sgt. Andrew Bolen waits for Garrison Commander Col. Kelsey Smith.
The Bolen residence was just one of the 354 on post the colonel is visiting to get a firsthand look at the current challenges faced by Arsenal residents with having work orders completed and problems solved by the Army’s private contractor in charge of taking care of the installation’s housing – Hunt Military Communities.
It’s all part of an initiative that started back in February after news broke about the state of housing across several armed services installations.
The senior leadership, including Smith, made many visits to homeowners.
Smith said he was getting a firsthand look at how the residents were caring for their homes and what problems they had. The visits give him an insight into how accountable the homeowners are to the process of maintaining their homes and how accountable Hunt is to the process of taking care of work orders when they are generated.
Since that initial group of visits, Smith said: “We’ve done our part to improve our oversight, but I still need to see it to get a feel for what is really happening.”
That’s what brought him to the Bolens’ doorstep.
That night he said he was looking for three things to evaluate how the Army and Hunt were doing – communication, responsiveness and resolution.
Bolen pointed the colonel in the direction of the sliding-glass backdoor – it doesn’t slide.
To open the door, Bolen has to lift the entire door panel and move it. To close the door, it takes even more of an effort. Bolen has to lift the door panel, hold it in an elevated position, engage the lock and then set it in place.
Bolen mentioned there is a lack of communication once a work order is placed, a problem identified, and a solution found with his backdoor.
He knows the door is back-ordered, and he knows what it was going to take to fix the problem, but that is about it.
That’s an issue Smith has seen across the board.
“I’ve seen a lack of communication in that follow-through,” he said in a separate interview. “Don’t we owe our resident a phone call back or a visit by the house to say ‘hey, that storm door is on backorder. It’s due in here, and I’m going to schedule you for an appointment in this month.’”
According to Smith, communication works both ways.
On the resident’s side, there’s sometimes a lack of follow-up on work orders.
“Residents who are invested in their homes, put in the work orders, and who are the squeaky wheel – they get the grease.”
It’s this communication between the resident and Hunt that the colonel hopes to improve.
Inside Bolen’s home, there’s a spot on the ceiling where you can tell workers repaired a leak. The paint over the repair was brighter than the color of paint around it, making it stand out like Band-Aid over a cut.
It didn’t bother the Bolens, and therefore there was no work order, but in the colonel’s view, that’s not a complete repair or a full resolution to the issue.
Ensuring work orders are resolved is at the top of Smith’s list.
Before visiting Bolen’s home, he gave this example while sitting in his office, which matched the issue at the Bolen residence.
“I’ll walk into a home, and I’ll be able to see where a patch has been done,” Smith said. “My work order says that you had a leak in the ceiling. They came out, and they fixed that – and they clearly fixed it – but I knew walking in that they had a leak.
“My version is if I can see where that leak was – we failed.”
Back inside the home, the two moved to the master bathroom upstairs to inspect the base of the tub.
There’s a gap between the tub and the tile, which workers did caulk, but the gap still allowed water to get trapped and a continuous sludge to leak out despite constant cleaning efforts.
Situations like this raise an interesting issue when it comes to caring for and maintaining these homes. Do you seal around the tub again or replace it?
Or, let’s say it’s a smaller item like a crack in an old windowpane or a window that’s fogged.
Do you fix the problem right now, knowing in two or three months all of the windows are going to be updated and replaced?
For the colonel, it’s not a simple answer.
To understand why, you have to know how the relationship between the Army, Hunt and the resident is set up.
Hunt owns the homes, they’ve leased them for 50 years, which means eventually those structures will be returned to the Army.
So, on one hand, the colonel has a responsibility to ensure that when those homes are returned to the Army, they are in the best condition possible. On the other hand, he has to make sure the residents are receiving the services they need.
To aid in ensuring the homes are properly maintained, and the residents are being taken care of, a portion of the residents’ rent goes into a fund designed to refurbish and update each home on the Arsenal. Another part goes toward covering the cost associated with running privatized housing like everyday maintenance.
Over the next two years, 120 homes are scheduled to be refurbished, and on top of that, you have to factor in the cost of maintenance in the homes that are not planned for a revamp.
The answer for the tub is to replace it. It’s old, and the previous repairs didn’t solve the problem. The solution for the hypothetical fogged windows is waiting six months for the home to be refurbished because by replacing them twice, you limit the ability for future renovations down the road.
In his words, the colonel’s role is to act as a referee between Hunt and the residents and bring both sides together to improve the housing for those living on post.
Some of the progress, according to Smith, has been Hunt hiring three new maintenance technicians and two new quality control personnel.
“Through our learning together, we’re in agreement about what the workforce structure needs to look like,” he said.
The goal with the hiring is to get back to an equilibrium where work orders are being completed in a timely and efficient manner.
“I have to communicate to the resident that we’re not going to fix this overnight,” he said. “The Army couldn’t fix this overnight. And I want them to know that they are one of the three partners in this. And their participation in the process, their investment to making their home better is part of the process.
“It takes all three legs on that stool for the stool to stay steady.”