The smell wafted from their daughter’s bedroom closet, a skunky-musty odor that had Amber D’Antonio and her husband, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Louis “Gus” D’Antonio, scratching their heads about the source.
They didn’t smell it initially when they moved into their home in the La Mesa military housing development, Amber says, so Gus could attend the Naval Postgraduate School. And that’s because contractors had to come in and deep clean the place after previous tenants left behind a mess.
But over about a month, the dominant smell of carpet cleaner dissipated and the skunk stench took over.
“I had Gus go up into the attic to see if someone had been growing marijuana up there because of the smell, but he came out and said, ‘No, the attic is clean,’” Amber says. Over time, she had to spend multiple hours every other week on a multi-step process using Borax, bleach and then regular laundry detergent in a futile attempt to keep her daughter’s clothes odor-free.
Her daughter’s teacher had called and said, “‘Amber, her clothes smell,’ and I didn’t want her to be the smelly kid in class,” Amber D’Antonio says.
The smell turned out to be mold, and the mold started growing through the walls and floors. The military housing office’s solution – install an ozone machine in the closet and keep it running – is an act that could have killed the little girl had she slept in that bedroom because the machines remove oxygen from the air and should only be used in uninhabited homes.
There was so much mold hidden under tile and behind wallboard and paint that by the time the D’Antonios moved out in February 2020, they had to dispose of every piece of personal property they owned that involved fabric, and former Presidio of Monterey commander Col. Greg Ford wrote a formal memorandum declaring the house uninhabitable until it could be gut renovated.
That is according to a lawsuit filed by the D’Antonios, along with another former La Mesa family, Marine Maj. Ryan Keller and his wife, Samantha. They are suing a number of military housing contractors, including Monterey Military Housing LLC, Clark Pinnacle Monterey Bay LLC and Clark Realty Capital, LLC, alleging the homes they rented in Monterey were unfit for human habitation, led to the loss of substantial personal property and left their children with persistent health problems due to protracted mold exposure.
It’s unusual for active-duty military officers to file this kind of suit. But Amber D’Antonio says the fight came to their doorstep and they intend to see it through.
“I don’t want other military families to suffer in silence,” she says. “I felt like in Monterey, they brought the war to my house.”
Ford, who retired from the Army and now works in the private sector, says he wants to see both families receive full reimbursement for the personal property they had to dump.
“No family,” he says, “should have to live through what they lived through.”
Congress privatized military housing in 1996 through the Military Housing Privatization Initiative, turning over more than 204,000 homes on 150 military installations to contractors for management. In 2016, a report by the Department of Defense Inspector General found that poor maintenance and oversight throughout the program left military families vulnerable to pervasive health and safety hazards.
The Kellers, the other family suing the contractors, found the home they rented while Ryan Keller was earning his master’s in computer science at NPS had interior walls that “swelled” from moisture. They asked for one wall to be repaired before they moved in; when they arrived from North Carolina in May 2017, it had been painted white and they assumed it was fixed.
Over time, though, other problems cropped up: Sewage backed up into their bathtub and outside their front door and the house was infested with ants that no amount of spraying could drive away. When the swelling on one wall increased, contractors put a humidifier in the room and told the family to keep all the doors and windows closed – they all got upper respiratory infections.
When it was decided the wall had to be opened up completely, the contractors put the family in a hotel overnight. When Samantha Keller returned the next day to get more clothing for her and her children, a maintenance manager ordered her off the property and then had the locks on the home changed.
If she wanted to step foot into her own home, she had to have an escort from the housing office.
“We had noticed the remediation practices they were using didn’t look right, and we started reaching out to outside professionals asking, ‘What should mold remediation look like?’” she says. “The outside sources advised what we were seeing was not correct.”
The Kellers also had to discard most of their personal property due to mold infestation.
The House Armed Services Committee, of which U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, is a member, was scheduled to hold hearings starting March 10 on privatized military housing reforms. Clark Realty Capital declined the committee’s request to participate.
A media representative from Clark Realty Capital LLC, of which the other defendants are related entities, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.