Housing benefits for military families lag as rents soar

Associated Press (AP) — When Kristin Martin found out her husband was being transferred to Naval Base San Diego, securing housing for their family of five quickly took over her life.

Associated Press (AP) — When Kristin Martin found out her husband was being transferred to Naval Base San Diego, securing housing 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, whose husband is a lieutenant, cast a wide net across San Diego and started applying for rental homes, unseen.

“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 nearly $700 more than the basic monthly housing allowance, known as BAH, that her husband 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 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 spikes, the Department of Defense has neglected its commitment to helping military families find affordable housing, say military personnel 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. »

Reports of the housing crisis military families are feeling 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 nationwide rents soaring, housing allowances, which vary by rank and are recalculated each year, have not kept pace with rental markets, even though they are meant to cover 95% of rental costs for approximately two-thirds of active duty personnel who 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 real estate company Zillow, rents have gone up. soared 43.9% in these markets: Carlsbad, CA; 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.

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 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 on average 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.

Tampa real estate agent Renee Thompson said it’s been 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.”

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 that would give the department a year to reconsider its process and report on the accuracy of the current system. is.

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.

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

Rj Rico, The Associated Press