Latest News

This article was originally published in the Progress-Index on 04/27/2019

FORT LEE — Saying it makes him “angry beyond words” to hear of less-than-desirable living conditions in on-post private housing, Sen. Mark R. Warner called for urgency Thursday in holding the builders of those residences accountable for cleaning and maintaining them.

Warner, D-Va., is co-sponsoring legislation that would increase oversight of those builders who have contracts with military installations to build the dwellings. He came to Fort Lee Thursday afternoon to meet with some of the homeowners and see some of the problems they are facing. Among the issues he saw and heard about were concerns about mold, infestations and overall miscommunication with the builders.

Earlier this year, the Military Family Advisory Network conducted preliminary research via survey and interviews regarding the quality of living in privatized military housing in the U.S. and published the findings in February. According to the report, of 16,779 responses, more than half indicated that they had negative or very negative experiences with privatized military housing. The respondents listed 35 property management companies. Common areas of concern included mold exposure, pest infestation, and structurally unsound homes, while the families felt like their concerns were being ignored. In some cases, the reports finds, families had to threaten legal action or medical impact for their situations to be remediated.

Of those responses, 18% came from families who live in housing maintained by Hunt Military Communities, the company that holds the contract with Fort Lee. Hunt has contracts with several other military installations, and the report did not specifically mention Fort Lee by name.

Amber Machado led Warner on a tour of the home she shares with her husband, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Machado and their young child. She showed him an ant infestation and algae growth on the exterior of the home, and four different types of flooring, evidence of damage to the walls from previous residents, and repairs that had been made well after they moved into their “move-in ready” home.

Amber Machado said they have expressed these and many other grievances to Hunt. For example, when the Machados went to have their washer installed, the laminate flooring adhesive that was already not installed properly was further exposed.

“Hunt’s solution to that was to clean it up with Magic Eraser,” said Nicholas Machado.

At the home of Staff Sgt. Brian Santos and his wife, Patricia, the senator was met with photo evidence of damages to the house. Patricia Santos said she noticed buckling in her floors in September 2018, caused by a leak that spread to her living room. In addition to the floors desperately needing replacement, the leak provided an ideal environment for mold growth, which she tried to get fixed as well.

“The contractor that they sent was not licensed or certified in the remediation of mold,” said Patricia Santos. “No plastic was ever placed around the area. When he lifted the flooring, the mold went everywhere: it went into my couches, into my carpets, onto my dining room table and into my kitchen.”

“It was September 2018 when we noticed the mold. [Hunt] did not finally fix everything until the sixth of April,” said Santos.

Warner, along with Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris of California, has introduced the Ensuring Safe Housing for our Military Act in March, in an effort to address the hazards present in privatized military housing. According to a press release by the senator regarding the announcement of the bill, provisions of the bill include basic allowance for housing costs and additional transparency for service members, creating “stronger oversight mechanisms, allow the military to withhold payments to contractors until issues are resolved.”

Immediately following the home tour, Warner held a roundtable to hear more from families about their living conditions.

The roundtable led to other military members expressing their issues with Hunt ranging from maintenance members coming in to make repairs without notice, to miscommunications within Hunt’s offices resulting in the military member not having any housing, to infants being hospitalized for respiratory issues due to mold. Throughout the meeting, Warner articulated his sympathy with the servicemembers and frustration with the private housing companies that often have lengthy contracts with the military bases and provide inadequate service.

“If I was living in a home with mold and had no recourse, it makes me angry beyond words.” Warner said. “We will make the systemic change, but if some of these folks have to go back with young kids to sleep tonight in a house with mold, there has to be this sense of urgency to get this changed.”

Warner’s stop at Fort Lee was part of a two-day visit to the Richmond area that included a walkthrough of the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, where evidence of a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog across the entire National Park Service manifests, as more than $700,000 in overdue maintenance needs have not been addressed. 

This article was originally published in the Washington Post on 04/10/2019

Two U.S. senators unveiled new legislation Tuesday targeting what they say are deceptive tricks, employed by websites and tech companies, that are designed to mislead or confuse Internet users into giving away their rights and choices as consumers.

The bill is another salvo in a widening congressional effort to rein in the tech industry, whose data breaches and other privacy mishaps have prompted calls for tougher regulation of Silicon Valley.

The legislation, known as the DETOUR Act and introduced by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), zeroes in on a phenomenon known as “dark patterns”: The various ways in which Web designers subtly steer users toward completing certain transactions, such as signing up for an email newsletter, making a purchase or consenting to the collection or sharing of personal information.

The rise of dark patterns reflects how tech companies have increasingly turned human psychology into a moneymaking tool — at the expense of consumers’ ability to make truly informed choices, Fischer said in a statement.

“Misleading prompts to just click the ‘OK’ button can often transfer your contacts, messages, browsing activity, photos, or location information without you even realizing it,” she said.

On Tuesday, Warner launched into a series of tweets showing how dark patterns are commonly found across the Internet.

But dark patterns, and the logic behind them, are hardly a new idea. More than a decade ago, University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard University law professor Cass Sunstein helped shed light on the psychological aspects of decision-making with their 2008 book “Nudge.”

The book explored how “choice architecture,” or the way in which choices are presented to consumers, can powerfully shape their subsequent behavior. Examples included how, by automatically enrolling their employees in a 401(k), companies could help increase Americans’ retirement savings.

How companies ask consumers to make choices online is becoming increasingly important as more firms turn to personal data as a business model, analysts say. Nowhere is that more evident than in the tech industry, where giants such as Facebook and Google have built multibillion-dollar products out of the data that’s generated when users click on ads and enter search terms.

Without naming those businesses in particular, Tuesday’s bill appears to focus on the largest tech companies, aiming to make it illegal for firms with more than 100 million users to create user interfaces "with the purpose or substantial effect of obscuring, subverting, or impairing user autonomy, decision-making, or choice to obtain consent or user data.”

Under the proposal, tech companies would also be required to set up independent review boards akin to those on college campuses that oversee human research studies, in order to perform testing on user engagement.

“Our choice architectures are just completely muddled and clouded by the little tricks companies play to get you to consent, even though you may not want to,” said Paul Ohm, a law professor at Georgetown University, at a Washington conference on digital privacy Tuesday hosted by the Federal Trade Commission.

The Internet Association, a trade group that represents Silicon Valley’s biggest firms in Washington, declined to comment.