Housing benefits for military families lag as rents soar

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

Base housing was not an option – the waiting list for a four-bedroom home in the neighborhoods they qualified for was 14 to 16 months.

There were also no military-only hotels near the base, where newcomers can pay low rates as they orient themselves – those were also fully booked.

So Martin cast a wide net across San Diego and started applying for rental homes, unbeknownst to anyone.

“I would wake up and the first thing I would do was look at properties,” Martin said. “I watched it at noon, before going to bed. I had set alerts. It became a full time job. »

More than 30 rental applications later and hundreds of dollars in lost application fees, the Martins have finally found a home.

But there were caveats. They should start paying rent one month before moving out. And, at $4,200 a month, their rent was almost $700 more than the basic monthly housing allowance, known as BAH, that her husband, a lieutenant, receives.

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

“It affects us personally, but then I think about how we were a junior enlisted family at one point. I can’t imagine the struggles (they) go through.

Housing has long been a major benefit for service members, a salary subsidy that follows the private sector. But, amid record rent spikesthe Department of Defense has neglected its commitment to help military families find affordable housing, say military and housing activists.

This has forced many people to settle for substandard homes, face extremely long commutes, or pay thousands out of pocket that they hadn’t budgeted for.

“We have families coming to us who are on exorbitant waiting lists and who are sitting in homes they can’t afford, like an Airbnb rental, or they’re in a hotel or camping in tents. or live in motorhomes,” Kate Needham said. , a veteran who co-founded the nonprofit Armed Forces Housing Advocates in May 2021.

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

Needham’s group provides micro-grants to needy military families, some of whom have turned to food banks because their salaries don’t cover these basic needs.

Reports of housing shortages facing military families have alarmed members of Congress, who are pushing legislation that would force the Department of Defense to rethink how it handles housing.

A common complaint is that with soaring rents nationwidehousing allowances, which vary according to grade and are recalculated each year, have not kept pace with changes in the rental markets, even though they are supposed to cover 95% of the rental costs of some two-thirds of the staff in active service who, like the Martins, must live off base.

According to an analysis of data by The Associated Press from five of the most populated military bases in the United States, housing allowances at all ranks have increased by an average of 18.7% since January 2018. During this period, according to the real estate company Zillow, rents soared 43.9% in these markets: Carlsbad, California; Colorado Springs, Colorado; El Paso, TX; Killeen, Texas, and Tacoma, Washington.

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

Needham argues that the gap between military housing allowances and the current market should alarm officials who are already struggling to recruit the next generation.

“If you can’t afford your job, why the hell would you stay at work?” Needham said. “People feel mistreated by the military in so many different areas – sexual assault issues, lack of attention to medical care, lack of attention to mental health. It’s just another tick in the box that’s like, ‘Why should I join the military?’ And if you don’t have enough numbers, it’s a long-term national security issue.

The Ministry of Defense did not say whether housing issues became a retention issue. But defense officials said military housing offices monitor markets and offer tools to help families, including referral services to help find “suitable and affordable housing, whether on or off base”.

“The Department of Defense is committed to ensuring service members and their families have access to affordable, quality housing within a reasonable commute of their duty station,” he said.

At MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, housing allowances matched the local market. In January 2020, a senior airman with no dependents received a monthly housing allowance of $1,560, compared to the typical Tampa-area rental price of $1,457, according to Zillow. But since then rent prices have skyrocketed to $2,118 a month in July, while a senior airman’s housing allowance is currently $1,647.

With such a gap and those living off base facing notoriously long commutes, it’s no wonder nearly all of MacDill’s 572 houses are full. As of last week, the base was at 95% capacity with a waiting list of 548 families, according to Second Lieutenant Kristin Nielsen, MacDill’s public affairs officer.

“We’re terribly underhoused,” said Stephanie Poynor, a Tampa property manager and wife of a retired military man. “The DoD needs to recognize how much our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coasters are truly hurting in this market.”

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

“No home on the market today will even come close to the service member’s BAH,” said Thompson, who served in the military. “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 considering adding on-base and off-base housing for MacDill, which has about 18,500 active duty personnel, she said. But due to the need for congressional budget approval, such long-term solutions are years away.

Even at Idaho’s rural Mountain Home Air Force base, housing is extremely difficult to find, hampered by its location about 80 miles outside of Boise, one of the hottest markets in the country.

Colonel Jamaal Mays, the commander of the 366th Fighter Support Wing, said housing allowances had increased, but not enough to keep pace with soaring prices.

Brand new Airmen are normally housed in on-base dormitories for about 36 months, but because the demand for on-base housing is so high, they often only spend 18-20 months.

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

With few options, Mays said some Airmen have started living in RV parks or farther afield, including Twin Falls, where they face commutes of up to two hours. on sometimes snowy roads, which is hardly ideal if they have to respond to an emergency base. , not to mention fuel costs, he says.

Last fall, defense officials issued temporary BAH increases from October to December 2021 in 56 housing markets, including Mountain Home and Tampa. Yet, while rents have continued to rise, there is no sign of a similar rise occurring this fall.

Even if housing allowances see a hike in January, it could end up eliminating food stamp eligibility for some military families struggling with food insecurity.. This is because the Department of Agriculture considers 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 housing allowance calculations, U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., introduced a measure this would give the department a year to review its process and report on the accuracy of the current system.

BAH is like an “algorithm that needs to be updated regularly,” said Strickland, whose district includes the sprawling Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, where many military families struggle to find affordable housing. His proposal is part of the national defense bill which passed the House in July and is awaiting Senate approval.

“The vast majority of people live off-post, so it’s extremely urgent,” she said.

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Edward N. Arrington