Residents of San Onofre II housing aboard Camp Pendleton allege that Lincoln Military housing is threatening them with eviction notices if they don't pay extremely high electric bills that they are contesting. (Photo courtesy of Kristine Schellhaas.)
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is reportedly looking into allegations that a company which runs military housing at one of California's largest bases is scamming its residents out of money they don't owe.
Lincoln Military Housing has reportedly been trying to get military residents to pay hundreds of dollars more than they owe for energy bills, according to statements from families obtained by We Are the Mighty. And if the residents don't pay up, the Lincoln Military Housing's San Onofre district office allegedly threatens to have the service members and their families evicted, these families claim.
The exact number of families who have received these eviction notices is unknown, though WATM spoke with multiple military spouses and service members who had been notified by their commands that Lincoln was ordering them out of their homes just before the Christmas holidays.
The residents, all of whom claim they are paid up on rent, all spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from the housing office in question.
According to one couple who spoke to WATM, an eviction notice was sent to them in early December in response to an article that appeared on the website USMC Life, which is run by military spouse Kristine Schellhaas.
"This program has been hurting our military families since its inception," Schellhaas told WATM in a statement. "Our families should be able to live on base without the financial burden and threat of eviction from poorly executed billing."
Schellhaas wrote about the couple on her site in December, calling for the housing office to look into its exorbitant energy bills over the previous two months. Though Schellhaas declined to use their real names, the couple had posted about their frustrations in a Facebook neighborhood group page after being threatened with eviction.
Schellhaas indicated that NCIS was investigating the allegations. When reached for comment, NCIS said it was "unable to comment on an ongoing investigation."
The residents of the San Onofre II district aboard Camp Pendleton claim that, until roughly two months prior, their bills had been at or below the grace period, meaning they were not billed for utilities.
According to documents obtained by WATM, the residents all saw extreme hikes that had nothing to do with increased power usage.
Lincoln Military Housing declined to respond to multiple requests for comment on these allegations.
Lincoln Military Housing takes part in a program where, if residents manage to conserve energy, they can receive money back from the housing office. If they go over the allotted amount, they pay extra.
The energy bills are managed by a company called Yes Energy Management. The premise behind the company is simple — they are essentially a paid middleman for the middleman. Basically, Lincoln Military Housing — who is contracted by the Department of Defense to manage the housing on some military installations — pays Yes Energy Management to send an electric bill to the base residents.
Rather than having the actual electric company send the bill directly to the residents, both Lincoln Military Housing and Yes Energy Management oversee these bills privately — effectively eliminating any contact between the resident and the electric company.
Each of the homes is fitted with a third party Yes Energy meter that the company uses to determine how much electricity has been used.
The way the system works is that each neighborhood gets their energy usages during a trial period combined and an average is determined by Yes Energy. Those who are above that average get penalized. Those who are below it get rewarded.
Once the residents pay their bills every month, Yes Energy pays the actual energy company, takes its fee from the remainder, and sends what's left back to Lincoln Military Housing, according to residents.
One of the problems, according to the residents of San Onofre II, is that the neighborhoods they live in weren't built to have their energy usage measured individually. The residents say that an unnamed employee at their housing office explained that things like Camp Pendleton street lights are wired into their houses, which means that the residents are responsible for paying much more than just their own electric bill.
One resident told We Are the Mighty, "It's just me and my husband, so when we received the outrageous bills we said something about it and come to find out, our house was hooked up to several street lights."
Other residents allege that, in addition to paying for the streetlights, empty houses around them drive their monthly usage allotments down. Because there are no residents in those homes, according to neighbors, there is no usage - severely impacting the average usage in that community.
That isn't a hard thing to imagine, considering Yes Energy has this on its website:
Yes Energy Management boasts on their website an ability to recover lost payments due to vacant homes.
Neither of these theories exactly explain why an entire group of residents suddenly saw a significant increase in their bills despite not having changed anything in their homes, residents say.
Residents of the housing community fear retaliation from the housing office if they talk too much, but they say that not addressing the problem doesn't fix it, either.
Several residents say they questioned their bills, first going directly to Yes Energy; they claim that Yes Energy told them that the issue was not with them or the energy provider and that they should be speaking with the housing office regarding the way the communities were built.
These same residents allege that they then took their concerns to base housing, where it took months for just a handful of them to receive any type of response. Those that were fortunate enough to get a response also received messages that hinted Yes Energy was to blame for the outrageous bills.
Chelsea Levin, a service coordinator for Lincoln's San Onofre Housing office, wrote in an email to a resident dated Dec. 7, "I am e-mailing as a follow up regarding the issues you have been having in the home with the Yes Energy account. I wanted to let you know that we are now waiting on the utility company to make the changes."
The email is in response to a phone call placed to the housing office in September, according to the resident who provided the original email.
So where does that leave the residents?
Residents who lived both off base and aboard other military installations know that this isn't how the program is supposed to work, nor does it work this way elsewhere. But they love their community, so they're at an impasse.
Right where they were, for now.
The resident who originally spoke with Schellhaas alleges that they were served an eviction notice the day after Schellhaas's post went live. According to that resident and the resident's active duty spouse, the housing office contacted the service member's command to deliver the notice.
In a Facebook post, the resident said that Lincoln cited the resident's use of salty language in a phone call with the office as the reason they were being evicted.
The resident claimed that the office gave that reason directly to the service member's command.
"They're saying I was verbally abusive," the resident wrote.
When We Are the Mighty reached out to the couple, the resident responded, "I feel as if the housing office saw the article that was posted in USMCLife and that is what caused them to call this morning as well as tell us we were being evicted."
Other residents who spoke with us cited a fear of retaliation after it became public information that the original residents in Schellhaas's story were being evicted. One resident wrote: "If you wouldn't mind, could you please not mention our names or resident IDs? He's a Marine."
And another resident wrote to us regarding her husband's concern about her speaking with us, "He's terrified we will get evicted. I kept trying to reassure him, but the longer I was looking [at our bill] the more he started to freak out. ... He says he'd rather get screwed than be homeless."
Residents are legitimately afraid of retaliation from the housing office for speaking to We Are the Mighty.
Recently, Schellhaas was tasked with updating Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford's wife Ellyn on "hot-button" issues facing the military community.
In preparation for that meeting, she collected energy data from 17 base homes and four off base homes. What she found was that base residents were charged nearly 45 percent more for comparable energy usage off base. An entire breakdown of her findings can be reviewed here.
Schellhaas issued this statement to We Are the Mighty in regards to the entire energy program:
"I believe there hasn't been enough due diligence in its implementation and no one authority has demonstrated that the organizations can be made accountable for their actions," she said. "Privatized housing blames Yes Energy and vice-versa, meanwhile our families are suffering."