Make-ready basic training: with 6,000 units and troops on the move, Fort Hood Family Housing must run a tight ship to complete timely and efficient make-readies.
More than conventional apartment housing, military installations can seem like revolving doors, and the comings and goings of America's finest can overwhelm the most efficient, hard-working property management team. Yet FHFH turns a home around in an average of three days. Here's some basic training in its highly disciplined operations.
A Change in Command
Until recently, military housing was managed by the government, which contracted out maintenance services. But in 2001, the government moved to privatize military housing. It's a gradual process, but eventually all stateside military housing will follow.
What privatization means, in a nutshell, is that the government continues to own the land, but enters into a 50-year partnership or contract with a private development company. That company--in this case, Actus Lend Lease LLC--manages leasing operations, rent collection, maintenance, renovations, design and even new construction. Actus has won contracts to manage about 34,000 housing units--in the form of single-family homes, duplexes, four-plexes and eight-plexes--on bases from Hawaii to New York. FHFH maintenance employees fall directly under WinnResidential, Actus's joint venture management partner.
Ship In, Ship Out, Make Ready
Joe Sharp, CAPS, is Vice President and Project Manager for Actus's Asset Management Group, which makes him responsible for just about everything. That long list includes maintenance, development, new construction and finances. Having worked in the private sector for 30 years, he is in a perfect position to contrast the military make-ready philosophies with the private sector's.
"We do things a little differently in the military," Sharp said. "We aim for very fast turnaround because we have a waiting list that numbers in the hundreds, and every day a home is empty represents not only the loss of a day's rent, but another day that a military family does not have a permanent home," Sharp said. "On the other hand, leasing professionals, unless they are enjoying 100 percent occupancy, typically want a certain number of units ready at all times."
The steady flow of make-readies keeps the FHFH Resident Services crew hopping. Maintenance Manager Bob Brown said, "We receive about 250 move-outs each month, although that number varies greatly with the seasons. The size of our staff varies accordingly. Our average is 188, but we've been as high as 206 and as low as 165. We try to avoid layoffs whenever possible by reducing work hours."
In June last year, Brown's service squad received 511 move-outs, or Vacant Quarters Maintenance (VQMs). With 6,000 units, that translates into a whopping 8.5 percent turnover in a single month. With the make-readies spread over the month, at a pace of about 16 to 25 per day, keeping track of who's going where, and when, is a job for well-organized maintenance managers and property management software.
Still, meeting two very different objectives--turning homes at lightning speed and reducing residents' stress about moving out--is definitely a challenge. "Our dedicated labor force, well-stocked warehouse and great cooperative relationship between property managers and maintenance make it possible," Brown said.
Higher volume strains the contract budget, too; the average make-ready costs about $1,100 per unit. Fortunately, operational and technical innovations that Brown and his group have implemented have saved taxpayers millions.
Other unique factors influence turnaround time at Fort Hood. Much of its housing is 40 years to 60 years old. These houses have been renovated, but like civilian renters, temporary residents of military housing tend to be harder on housing than owners are. Also, many young soldiers are living in their own homes for the first time and they don't always realize when there's a problem that needs attention.
Years ago, the military made a point of regularly visiting each family to determine the health and welfare of both the residents and the homes. That is no longer the case. At Fort Hood, maintenance technicians do not enter a home when nobody is there--unless authorized to do so by the resident--whether to complete a work order or to perform pest control. That makes resident reporting the only means of knowing what's going on in a particular unit.
Although the setting is military, many of the make-ready issues are universal. The average turnaround involves repairs to walls, checking and replacing appliances if needed, painting and replacing worn carpeting. "In extreme cases, such as pest infestations or structural damage," Brown said, "turnaround can take more than a month. But on the other hand, some families leave the houses so pristine that soldiers can move in the same day."
FHFH Resident Services appreciate those families because there is a huge waiting list for military housing. Like most bases, Fort Hood lacks sufficient housing to meet the demand. So what's the big attraction? "Value," Sharp said. "You get more square footage for your money. For example, a soldier with a family can rent a four-bedroom on base for the same money that would garner only a two-bedroom home outside." The benefits of living on base don't end there. The partnership picks up the utilities tab for base-dwellers. And talk about rent control: The rent is always conveniently equal to the soldier's monthly housing allowance. The final perk, Sharp said wryly, is "getting to live in one of the world's largest gated communities."
Care Givers, Not Caretakers
Brown and his crew have some strong opinions, and strong feelings, about what they do. New staff member Glester Burkhart spent 20 years in the military and 10 years supporting soldiers. The latter included a year in Bosnia and 30 months living in a tent in Djibouti, Djibouti (Africa).
If only we all loved our jobs like Burkhart does, the world would be a far happier place. "My workday passes too quickly," he said. "It is such a privilege to serve these soldiers and their families. When a soldier is serving in Iraq, the last thing he or she needs is to worry about the family back home."
When it comes to make-readies, Burkhart said, "It's our job to take care of the houses. But it's really great to see people make them into homes."
Management helps set that tone. FHFH Resident Services are available 24/7. Larry Oglesby, Assistant Service Order Manager, respectfully refers to residents as clients rather than customers. And as a result of the fact that most work orders are carried out in the presence of residents, technicians and families get to know each other.
This familiarity may make spouses of deployed soldiers feel more comfortable reporting problems. "If they're concerned about it, we're concerned about it," Burkhart said. "The families of our soldiers are our report card. If they're happy, we're happy."
Running a Tight Ship
Since privatization, Brown has noticed several differences working with civilian property management companies. "In the private sector, when there's a major or specialized problem, the maintenance person typically calls someone from outside to fix it," he said. "It's expensive, and it can delay resolution of the problem."
That procedure might work well for an Army of One, but it wouldn't cut it at Fort Hood. The maintenance staff of FHFH Resident Services includes specialists--plumbers and electricians, for example--as well as technicians with more generalized experience. "Our technicians do just about everything, including renovations," Brown said.
Of course, not every property management company oversees 6,000 homes in one area. But Brown's idea could be scaled down to as few as three or four technicians for smaller concentrations of units.
Brown believes that this management-maintenance relationship saves taxpayers millions of dollars in labor, materials and time. He points to the fact that before privatization, maintenance and renovations at Fort Hood cost $15 million to $17 million annually. Those costs have dropped to $10 million to $12 million.
Decisions related to renovation, demolition and new construction are made jointly by the partnership of Actus Lend Lease, WinnResidential (including the company's Asset, Property and Development Managers) and the government. "That's one of the benefits of privatization," Brown said. "It relieves the government of the burden of making those kinds of decisions and of the cost and effort involved in developing the scope of work and contracting services."
'We Don't Mess Around, Ma'am'
When it comes to problems that affect a large number of homes, creative thinking also saves taxpayers a tidy sum. One recent example involved air conditioning problems in 900 Fort Hood homes. "In a place like Texas, air conditioning vents should be installed near the ceiling because cold air sinks," Brown said. "But in these homes, the ductwork was routed between floors." That configuration resulted in poor cooling performance and problems with water condensation.
To address the problem, the partnership got advice and an estimate from an outside construction company. Its proposed solution was to install pneumatic dampers at a cost of $2.8 million for the 900 homes.
As a man who seems to relish a fiscal skirmish, Brown thought his group could fix the problem for less. He was right: "Larry Oglesby, the HVAC foreman at the time, suggested changing the entire configuration," Brown said. "We developed a plan to reroute the ductwork by going up through carport crawl spaces or linen closets into the attic. After that, all we had to do was sell the concept to the various entities that make up the partnership."
Brown and Oglesby can be forgiven for gloating because that approach is being implemented at a cost of only $700,000.
Even the ever-cranky Gen. George Patton would have approved. He said, "A leader is a man [or woman, of course] who can adapt principles to circumstances."
The Fort Hood operation couldn't function without the use of software to create work orders, track costs, maintain an up-to-the-minute inventory of parts and manage payroll. Previously, Brown and others had tweaked an existing software package to meet the company's needs. With the move to WinnResidential, FHFH has adopted a maintenance component of its property management software for the military. The process has been implemented and overseen by Sharp. "We're still learning," he laughed.
Asked to describe a typical day, Burkhart replied, "We sweat a lot." He had just completed one of the duct conversions, and it was only 8:30 a.m. Given a compliment about the speed with which he accomplished the task, he said, "We don't mess around, ma'am."
Besides make-readies, Brown's crew responds to almost 100,000 work orders a year. And that does not even count finding lost dogs, rescuing wheelchair-bound residents when they fall or performing additional repairs when they respond to a work order. And what kind of work order covers beehives in the attic of a child who is allergic to bee stings? "We moved that family out immediately, and put them in corporate housing for a week while we eliminated the pests," Oglesby said.
If these people's sense of purpose seems too good to be true, consider this quote from Gen. Colin Powell: "Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier." Whatever the secret to their success, there's no disputing that Brown's crew gets the job done promptly--and with a smile. And one more thing is abundantly clear: The maintenance techs of FHFH Resident Services wear their hearts on their tool belts.
Janice Myers is a freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M.