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$50 million project to renovate 750 homes at Fort Lee to begin this month


Work is expected to begin in two weeks on a project that will renovate more than 750 homes at Fort Lee in the coming years.

Hunt Military Communities, a private company that manages the housing on the U.S. Army base near Petersburg, is beginning a $50 million project to update the homes.

Most of them are located in duplexes that were built in Fort Lee in 2005 or before, said Jason Frenz, assistant vice president of development at Hunt Military Communities.

The project to renovate the homes is expected to take six to seven years to complete, Frenz said.

The first phase of the work is renovating 174 homes at Jackson Circle, a housing subdivision on the base that has Fort Lee's oldest homes that were built in the late 1990s. Subsequent renovation projects are planned at the Madison Park, Monroe Manor and Harrison Villa subdivisions on the base.

Renovations will include installing new roofing, windows and exterior doors, as well as new water heaters and furnaces.

Inside the homes, kitchens will get new cabinetry, countertops and appliances as well as new flooring and fixtures in the bathrooms in the units, Frenz said. The kitchens will also also have an open floor plan.

"The condition of the homes is perfectly fine," Frenz said. "We just want to get them more up to speed with the current living standards."

But Hunt Military Communities came under criticism last year amid complaints from residents at Fort Lee about the condition of the homes it manages on the base.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., held a round-table at Fort Lee in April 2019 to address concerns of military members and their families who live in the homes. The senator heard concerns about mold in the units, "sloppy" repair work, and other issues, according a May 2019 article on the U.S. Army's website.

At an earlier town hall, Fort Lee families aired concerns about chronic maintenance deficiencies and other issues, according to the article on the Army's website.

In an op-ed earlier this year, Warner wrote that he returned to the base to get an updated report on conditions at Fort Lee.

"To my frustration, families reported ongoing problems with black mold and other hazards," Warner wrote in the March op-ed. "I credit the leadership at Fort Lee for creating a forum for families to air these issues without fear of retaliation. Nevertheless, these families’ stories are a wake-up call for base leaders and Hunt housing officials that they have much more work to do."

Hunt Military Communities was one of several private military housing companies whom Warner wrote last year asking them to come up with ideas on how to tackle what the senatosu8r's office said were "health hazards documented by military families in Virginia and across the country."

When asked what Hunt Military Communities has done in response to resident complaints about its Fort Lee housing and whether the $50 million in renovations were taking place because of those concerns, Frenz responded with a statement from the company that said the renovations are part of a plan that's been in the works for years. 

"The renovations taking place on the 750+ homes at Fort Lee are part of a long-term sustainment plan which was originally contemplated when the project closed in 2007, and are scheduled to be done years ahead schedule due to the success of the Army/Hunt partnership," the Hunt Military Communities' statement said. "Hunt is committed to continuing to make necessary improvements to offer every resident high-quality housing and is working diligently to ensure all maintenance requests are addressed in a timely manner."

Jefferson Wolfe, a deputy public affairs officer at Fort Lee, said Hunt had been setting aside money into a reinvestment account for 13 years to help pay for the renovations.

"While the conditions that came to light last year were not the impetus for the renovations, the upgrades to the homes will go a long way toward addressing those residents' concerns," Wolfe said in an email.

Military service members lease the homes at Fort Lee using stipends that are provided as part of their service. The homes at the fort are owned by a limited liability corporation that's a joint venture between the Hunt Military Community and the U.S. Army, Wolfe said.

Nelly Decker, a spokeswoman for Warner, said the housing upgrades are part of the company's ongoing renovations at Fort Lee based on conversations between Hunt Military Communities and the senator's office.

"But I think there is no question that continued pressure from Sen. Warner, and Congress overall, has pushed Hunt and the other companies to improve conditions of the housing and their responsiveness to the service members and their families," Decker wrote in an email.

Last year, Warner announced that he and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., had introduced a measure which would allow the military to withhold payments to contractors until housing issues were resolved and prohibit contractors from charging certain fees. Large portions of that measure were included in an annual defense bill that passed the Senate in December, Decker said.

Hunt, based in El Paso, Texas, owns about 52,000 homes units spread across 40 military installations, according to the company's website.

In October, families at two Air Force bases - Randolph Air Force Base and Laughlin Air Force Base - claiming in a lawsuit that they became sick in mold and pest-infested housing that Hunt Military Communities had under-maintained, according to a news release from the families' attorneys.

John Hoyt, vice president at Hunt, declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the company doesn't comment on pending litigation.

The renovations of the 750 units would provide upgrades to about half of the more than 1,500 housing units that Hunt Military Communities manages at Fort Lee.

Hunt is competing with off-base housing options that are also available to soldiers in the communities surrounding Fort Lee, Hoyt said.

"It's our mission to make these appealing homes that are comparable to class A, off-site housing options," Hoyt said.

Col. Hollie Martin, the Fort Lee commander, said in a statement that officials at the Army base are "super excited" about the renovations that are starting in Jackson Circle.

"This is a big win for Fort Lee, as it's bringing long-lasting and much-needed upgrades to the homes our military families are living in," Martin said.

??sgorman@timesdispatch.com
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