‘They’re at a resort or tenting in tents or residing in RVs’: Army housing advantages lag as rents explode

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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 house 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 at lunchtime 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 amid record-breaking rent spikes, the Department of Defense has neglected its commitment to helping 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.”

APKate Needham, a veteran who co-founded the nonprofit Armed Forces Housing Advocates, looks on Tuesday, August 16, 2022 at a San Diego housing complex. 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. “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’s not the case at all.” (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

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.

It is often criticized that with rents rising nationwide, the housing benefit, which is graduated according to rank and recalculated annually, has not kept pace with the rental markets, even though it accounts for 95% of the rental costs for the approx. third of the active staff who like the Martins has to 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. In that span of time, rents have soared 43.9% in these markets, according to real estate company Zillow: 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 disconnect between military housing benefits and the current market should alarm officials already struggling to recruit the next generation.

“If you can’t afford your job, why the hell would you 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.