Joshua Schneyer on Reuters investigation that revealed hazardous, squalid housing of American military families
Last week, the Reuters investigation that revealed hazardous, squalid housing of American military families prompted Senate hearings to probe living conditions on U.S. bases. Following Wednesday’s hearings, Reuters reported that U.S. Senators scolded real estate executives and Pentagon leadership over “unacceptable” conditions in privatized military housing, vowing urgent reform to protect service families from widespread health and safety hazards in base homes. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Joshua Schneyer gives a behind-the-scenes look at how he and reporters Mike Pell, Andrea Januta and Deb Nelson reported the series.
Q. How did you and the team get started on this story? A. In 2017 I was finishing a series about lead poisoning with reporting partner Mike Pell. An Army colonel’s wife contacted me with a moving story: Her infant son had been poisoned by deteriorating lead paint in Army housing. The entirely preventable incident had stunted his brain development. Many Army families faced similar risks, she said. Soldiers’ children were being exposed to lead, black mold and other horrors resulting from housing neglect.
Management of family housing on restricted-access federal bases now falls to private real estate firms. The homes were beyond the scrutiny of local code inspectors. Even when families faced hazards, they were scared to take on powerful landlords in business with their military employer. These tenants – families making sacrifices to protect the rest of us — lacked recourse that civilian renters take for granted. A code of silence prevailed.
I wanted to not only tell the stories of families impacted by the hazards, but also delve into the Military Housing Privatization Initiative, the largest-ever corporate takeover of federal housing. The program’s confidential housing contracts last 50 years, offering billions in (undisclosed) fees for a coterie of developers and property managers. I joined forces with Mike, and we teamed with reporters Deb Nelson and Andrea Januta. We knew there would be lots of ground to cover.
Q. What types of reporting were involved? A. Lots of shoe-leather. The housing is spread across scores of bases, accommodating 700,000 Americans including 100,000 small children. We fanned out, visiting 16 of the largest bases. Access was a challenge. Base reporting is usually stage-managed by public information officers. We relied on families to invite us in. Over 18 months, we interviewed 300 of them. Many service members couldn’t talk to the media, but their spouses could. There were thousands of military documents to review, scores of FOIAs to file.
To get proof of housing hazards, and help families discover them, we used shoe-box sized lead testing kits in collaboration with scientists at Columbia University, and mold tests. To explore the undisclosed earnings flowing to private real estate firms, we obtained their contracts from project insiders. They showed one of the Army’s private housing partners is poised to collect $1 billion in fees while tenants clamor for repairs. The firm’s CEO, we reported, is installing a personal golf course at his lavishly decorated Irish vacation estate.
When Congress and military branches reacted to the coverage, we redoubled our reporting in Washington. In the past week, Reuters reporters have been summoned to the Pentagon twice, for sit-downs with Army and Air Force top brass, who laid out their continuing plan of response.
Q. What was the hardest part of the reporting? A. Gaining the trust of our sources often took months, many phone calls or in-person visits. And at one point, a military base commander attempted to thwart our reporting, issuing a safety alert to residents and directing them to “Call 911” if we showed up again.
Q. What change was brought about, and how? A. Congress held hearings and launched investigations. The military implemented housing fixes and moved scores of families to safe-houses. Thousands of families were emboldened to speak out, and as the full scope of the housing crisis came into sight, military branches and their private housing partners issued apologies and began major overhauls.
The Army is spending hundreds of millions to inspect homes for lead, mold and asbestos. It has pledged to re-negotiate housing contracts with its private partners, and “hold them accountable.” Town halls are addressing concerns at bases worldwide. The Air Force ordered inspections in all its base homes. Congress demanded action, wrote new legislation and ordered a GAO probe. DOD’s IG is investigating. Congress’ Armed Services Committees launched probes and base visits. The EPA is examining Louisiana National Guard housing practices.
Army bases got lead abatement. In Mississippi and North Carolina, families sickened by mold were moved. An Air Force landlord docking rent from tenants who fled dangerous homes stopped when Reuters came knocking. Army hospitals began reporting children’s lead testing results after we found them breaking state laws. The Army killed a policy discouraging home lead inspections. “This is just the beginning,” said Republican Senator Jim Inhofe as he chaired a Feb. 13 hearing on the matter. “We will fix this.”
Q. Will you be continuing on the story? What’s next? A. Yes. We’ve just had our latest planning call with editor Ronnie Greene. The team has lots of irons in the fire.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism? A. Tons of stuff, but you don’t have all day. Nothing beats the moment as a reporter when you realize you’ve got the goods. Unfortunately, it’s very rare (for me at least).
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist? A. I know I speak for the whole team in saying this reporting – helping ensure military families and children are safe from serious health hazards – has been immensely rewarding.
Q. Most difficult? A. Covering a 1999 mudslide in Venezuela, 20,000 people buried alive. I won’t forget the smell.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what? A. Something more musical.