Military families' housing benefits lag as rents explode
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.
On-base housing wasn’t an option — the waitlist for a four-bedroom home in the neighborhoods they qualified for was 14 to 16 months.
Neither were the military-only hotels near base where new arrivals can pay low rates as they get their bearings — those were full, too.
So Martin cast a wide net across San Diego and started applying for rental homes, all sight unseen.
“I was waking up and the first thing I was doing was looking at properties," Martin said. "I was looking at it midday, before I went to bed. I had alerts set. It became a full-time job.”
More than 30 rental applications later and hundreds of dollars in application fees down the drain, the Martins finally found a home.
But there were caveats. They’d have to start paying rent a month before they actually moved. And, at $4,200 per month, their rent was nearly $700 more than the monthly basic allowance for housing, known as the BAH, that her husband, a lieutenant, receives.
“We’ll probably be here two or three years, so that could be $20,000 that we’re paying out of pocket above BAH just for rent,” Martin said after completing her family's fourth move in 15 years last month.
“It's affecting us personally but then I think about how we were a junior enlisted family at one point. I cannot imagine the struggles (they) are going through.”
Housing has long been a major benefit for service members, a subsidy to salaries that trail the private sector. But, amid record-breaking spikes in rent, the Department of Defense has neglected its commitment to help military families find affordable places to live, service members and housing activists say.
That's forced many to settle for substandard homes, deal with extremely long commutes or pay thousands out of pocket they hadn't budgeted for.
“We have families coming to us that are on exorbitantly lengthy waiting lists and sitting in homes that they can’t afford, like an Airbnb rental, or they’re at a hotel or camping in tents or living in RVs," said Kate Needham, 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 just having a great time, making lots of money. And that’s not the case at all.”
Needham's group supplies microgrants to military families in need, some of whom have resorted to food banks because their salaries do not cover such basics.
Reports of the housing squeeze military families face has 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 rents soaring nationwide, the housing allowances, which vary by rank and are recalculated annually, haven’t kept pace with rental markets, even though they're supposed to cover 95% of rental costs for the approximately two-thirds of active-duty personnel who, like the Martins, have to live off base.
According to a data analysis by The Associated Press of five of the most populous military bases in the U.S., housing allowances across all ranks have risen an average of 18.7% since January 2018. In that span, according to real estate company Zillow, rents have skyrocketed 43.9% in those markets: Carlsbad, California; Colorado Springs, Colorado; El Paso, Texas; Killeen, Texas, and Tacoma, Washington.
And because of how tough off-base markets are, on-base housing has become a hot commodity, with many bases having long waitlists.
Needham argues that the discrepancy 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 in the job?” Needham said. “People are feeling abused by the military in so many different areas — the sexual assault issues, the lack of attention to medical care, the lack of attention to mental health. This is just another tick in the box that’s like, ‘Why would I join the military?’ And if you don’t have enough numbers, that’s a long-term national security problem.”
The Department of Defense did not comment on whether housing issues have become a retention concern. But defense officials said military housing offices monitor markets and offer tools to assist families, including referral services to help find “suitable, affordable housing, whether on or off-base.”
“The Department of Defense is committed to ensuring that service members and their families have access to affordable, quality housing within a reasonable commute of their assigned duty station,” it said.
At MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, housing allowances used to be in line with the local market. In January 2020, a senior airman without dependents received a monthly housing stipend of $1,560, compared to the typical Tampa-area rent price of $1,457, according to Zillow. But since then rent prices have exploded to $2,118 per month in July, while a senior airman’s housing allowance is currently $1,647.
With such a discrepancy and those living off-base facing notoriously long commutes, it's no wonder that nearly all of MacDill's 572 homes are full. As of last week, the base was at 95% capacity with a waitlist of 548 families, according to 2nd Lt. Kristin Nielsen, a MacDill public affairs officer.
“We are woefully underhoused,” said Stephanie Poynor, a Tampa property manager and wife of a retired serviceman. “The DoD needs to recognize how much our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coasties are really suffering in this market.”
Tampa real estate agent Renee Thompson, a relocation specialist, said it's common for service members to rent homes that are an hour's drive away from base.
“No homes in today’s market will even come close to the service member’s BAH,” said Thompson, who served in the Army. “It's really disheartening."
Nielsen said the annual housing allowance 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 service members, she said. But because of the need for congressional budgetary approval, such long-term solutions are years away.
Even at rural Idaho's Mountain Home Air Force Base, housing is extremely hard to come by, hampered by its location about 50 miles (80 kilometers) outside of Boise, one of the country's hottest markets.
Col. Jamaal Mays, the 366th Fighter Wing deputy commander for support, said housing allowances have increased, but not enough to keep pace with the spiking prices.
Brand new airmen are normally housed in dorms on base for about 36 months, but because demand for on-base housing is so high, they often only spend 18 to 20 months.
“They're being pushed out on the local economy before they’re ready,” Mays said.
With few options, Mays said some airmen have started living in RV parks or moving much further away, including to Twin Falls, where they face commutes of up to two hours on sometimes snowy roads, hardly ideal if they have to respond to a base emergency, not to mention the fuel costs, he said.
Last fall, defense officials issued temporary BAH increases for October to December 2021 in 56 housing markets — including Mountain Home and Tampa. Yet even though rents have continued to rise, there's no indication a similar bump is coming this fall.
Even if housing allowances do see a bump in January, that could end up taking away food-stamp eligibility for some military families who are struggling with food insecurity. That's because the Agriculture Department counts BAH as income when determining a family's eligibility for the SNAP government assistance program.
Frustrated by what she called the Defense Department's lack of transparency into housing allowance calculations, U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., has introduced a measure that would give the department one year to reexamine its process and report on how accurate the current system is.
BAH is like an “algorithm that needs updating on a regular basis,” said Strickland, whose district includes the massive Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, where many military families struggle to find affordable homes. Her proposal is part of the national defense bill that passed the House in July and is awaiting Senate approval.
“The vast majority of people live off post, so this is incredibly urgent,” she said.