Military families’ housing allowances lag behind while rents skyrocket

When Kristin Martin found out her husband was being transferred to Naval Base San Diego, securing housing for her family of five quickly took over her life.

Placement on the base was not an option – the wait list for a four-bedroom home in the neighborhoods they qualified for was 14 to 16 months.

The military hotels near the base, where newcomers can pay low rates if they get their bearings, weren’t full either.

So Martin cast a wide net over San Diego and began bidding for rentals, all unseen.

“I woke up and the first thing I did was look at real estate,” Martin said. “I watched them in the afternoon before I went to bed. I had notifications set. It became a full-time job.”

More than 30 rental applications later and hundreds of dollars in filing fees down the drain, the Martins finally found a home.

But there were caveats. You would have to pay rent a month before the actual move. And at $4,200 a month, her rent was almost $700 more than the monthly basic housing allowance, known as BAH, that her husband, a lieutenant, receives.

“We’ll probably be here for two or three years, so that could be $20,000 that we’re paying out of pocket through the BAH just for the rent,” Martin said after she completed her family’s fourth move in 15 years last month .

“It affects us personally, but then I think about how we were once a junior family. I can’t imagine the struggles (they) are going through.”

Housing has long been an important benefit for military personnel, a payroll supplement that lags behind the private sector. But in the middle record rent increasesThe Department of Defense has neglected its commitment to help military families find affordable housing, military officials and housing activists say.

That has forced many to settle for substandard homes, work extremely long commutes, or pay thousands out of pocket that they didn’t budget for.

“We have families that come to us who are on exorbitantly long waiting lists and are in houses they can’t afford, like an Airbnb rental, or they’re in a hotel, or they’re camping in tents, or they’re living in RVs,” said Kate Needham, a veteran who co-founded the nonprofit Armed Forces Housing Advocates in May 2021.

“I don’t think the civilians really understand that – they might think we’re living in free housing and just having a great time and making a lot of money. And that is not the case at all.”

Needham’s group provides micro-bursaries to needy military families, some of whom have resorted to Tafel because their salaries don’t cover such basic needs.

Reports of the housing shortages facing military families have alarmed members of Congress who are pushing legislation that would force the Department of Defense to reconsider how housing is handled.

A common complaint is that with Rents are rising nationwidethe housing allowance, tiered by rank and recalculated annually, has not kept pace with rental markets, although it is said to cover 95% of rental costs for the roughly two-thirds of active staff, who z the Martins, must live off base.

According to a data analysis by The Associated Press from five of the most populous military bases in the US, housing benefits at all ranks have increased by an average of 18.7% since January 2018. According to real estate companies in this period of time zillow, rents are up 43.9% in these markets: Carlsbad, California; Colorado Springs, Colorado; El Paso, Texas; Killeen, Texas and Tacoma, Washington.

And due to tough off-base markets, on-base housing has become a desirable commodity, with many bases having long waiting lists.

Needham argues that the discrepancy between military housing benefits and the current market should alarm officials who already are struggle to recruit the next generation.

“If you can’t afford your job, why the hell would you want to keep the job?” said Needham. “People feel abused by the military in so many different areas — the issues of sexual assault, the lack of attention to medical care, the lack of attention to mental health. This is just another tick in the box that says, “Why should I join the military?” And if you don’t have enough numbers, that’s a long-term national security problem.”

The Department of Defense has not commented on whether housing issues have become a retention issue. But defense officials said military housing offices are monitoring markets and offering tools to help families, including referral services, to help find “suitable, affordable housing, whether on or off base.”

“The Department of Defense is committed to ensuring that Soldiers and their families have access to affordable, quality housing within a reasonable distance of their assigned duty station,” it said.

At MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, the housing benefit used to be in line with the local market. In January 2020, a high-ranking Airman with no dependents received a monthly housing benefit of $1,560, compared to the typical Tampa-area rental of $1,457, according to Zillow. But since then, rental prices have skyrocketed to $2,118 a month in July, while a senior aviator’s housing benefit is currently $1,647.

With such a disparity and those living off-base, it’s no wonder nearly all of MacDill’s 572 homes are full. According to 2nd Lt. Kristin Nielsen, a MacDill public affairs officer, said the base was at 95% capacity last week, with a waiting list of 548 families.

“We’re woefully understaffed,” said Stephanie Poynor, a Tampa real estate manager and wife of a retired military man. “The Department of Defense needs to recognize how much our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coasters really are suffering in this market.”

Renee Thompson, a Tampa real estate agent who is a relocation specialist, said it’s common for service members to rent homes that are an hour’s drive from the base.

“No home on the market today even comes close to a military member’s BAH,” said Thompson, who served in the Army. “It’s really discouraging.”

Nielsen said the annual housing benefit calculation takes six to nine months, making it a “lagging indicator of the current dynamic housing market.”

Officials are looking into adding on-base and off-base housing for MacDill, which has about 18,500 active duty members, she said. But because of the need for Congressional budgetary approval, such long-term solutions are years away.

Even at Mountain Home Air Force Base in rural Idaho, housing is extremely hard to come by, hampered by its location some 50 miles outside of Boise, one of the country’s hottest markets.

Col. Jamaal Mays, the second-in-command of the 366th Fighter Squadron in Support, said housing allowances have increased, but not enough to keep up with soaring prices.

Brand-new fliers are usually housed in dormitories on base for around 36 months, but because the demand for on-base accommodation is so high, they often only spend 18 to 20 months.

“They’re being pushed into the local economy before they’re ready,” Mays said.

With few options, Mays said, some aviators have started living in RV parks or moving much farther afield, including to Twin Falls, where they have to commute up to two hours on sometimes snow-covered roads, which is hardly ideal when they’re on one to respond to emergencies at the base, not to mention the cost of fuel, he said.

Last fall, Defense officials issued temporary BAH increases for October through December 2021 in 56 residential markets – including Mountain Home and Tampa. But while rents have continued to rise, there is nothing to suggest a similar rise this fall.

Even if housing benefit sees a hike in January, it could result in some being deprived of food stamp eligibility Military families struggling with food insecurity. That’s because the Department of Agriculture counts BAH as income when determining a family’s eligibility for the SNAP government assistance program.

Frustrated by what she called the Department of Defense’s lack of transparency in how housing benefits are calculated, US Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., has introduced a measure up That would give the department a year to review their process and report on how accurate the current system is.

BAH is like an “algorithm that needs regular updates,” said Strickland, whose district includes the massive Lewis-McChord Joint Base near Tacoma, where many military families struggle to find affordable housing. Your suggestion is part of the National Defense Bill passed the House of Representatives in July and is awaiting Senate approval.

“The vast majority of people make their living from the post, so this is incredibly urgent,” she said.

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This story was first published on August 20, 2022. It was updated August 23, 2022 to correct that Col. Jamaal Mays is the Deputy Commander of the 366th Fighter Squadron Support, not the Commander Support.

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