Associated Press (AP) – When Kristin Martin learned her husband was being transferred to the San Diego Naval Base, securing housing for her family of five quickly took over her life.
Housing on base was not an option: The waiting list for a four-bedroom house in the neighborhoods they qualified for was 14 to 16 months.
Nor were the military-only hotels near the base where newcomers can pay low rates as they get their bearings, they were full, too.
So Martin, whose husband is a lieutenant, cast a wide net across San Diego and began applying for rental homes, sight unseen.
“I woke up and the first thing I did was look at properties,” Martin said. “I was watching it in the middle of the day, before I went to bed. I had the 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 should start paying rent a month before moving in. And at $4,200 a month, her rent was nearly $700 more than her husband’s basic monthly housing allowance, known as BAH.
“We’re probably going to be here two or three years, so that could be $20,000 that we’re paying out of pocket on top of BAH just for rent,” Martin said last month.
“It’s affecting us personally, but then I think about how we were a conscript family at one point. I can’t imagine the struggles they’re going through.”
Housing has long been an important benefit for service members, a salary subsidy that follows the private sector. But amid record rents, the Defense Department has neglected its commitment to help military families find affordable places to live, service members and housing activists say.
This has forced many to settle for substandard housing, 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 exorbitantly long waiting lists and sitting in houses they can’t afford, like an Airbnb rental, or they’re in a hotel, they’re camping in tents, or they’re living in RVs,” he said. say Kate Needham. , a veteran who co-founded the nonprofit Armed Forces Housing Advocates in May 2021.
“I don’t think civilians really get it; they might think we’re living in free housing and just having a good time, making a lot of money. And that’s not the case at all.”
Reports of the housing squeeze felt by military families have alarmed members of Congress pushing legislation that would force the Defense Department to rethink how it manages housing.
A common complaint is that with rents soaring across the country, housing allowances, which vary by rank and are recalculated annually, have not kept pace with rental markets, although assume they cover 95% of rental costs for about two-thirds. of active duty personnel living off base.
According to an Associated Press analysis of data from five of the most populous US military bases, housing allowances at all ranks have increased an average of 18.7% since January 2018. In that period , according to real estate firm Zillow, rents have increased. soared 43.9% in these markets: Carlsbad, Calif.; Colorado Springs, Colorado; El Paso, Texas; Killeen, Texas, and Tacoma, Washington.
And because of tough off-base markets, on-base housing has become a hot commodity, with many bases on long waiting lists.
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 at work?” Needham said.
The Department of Defense would not comment on whether housing issues have become a retention issue. But defense officials said military housing offices monitor the markets and provide tools to help families find “adequate and affordable housing, whether on or off base.”
“The Department of Defense is committed to ensuring that service members and their families have access to quality, affordable housing within a reasonable commute to their assigned duty station,” he 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 with no 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, rental prices have risen to an average of $2,118 a month in July, while a senior airman’s housing allowance is currently $1,647.
With that discrepancy and those living off-base facing notoriously long commutes, it’s no wonder that nearly all of MacDill’s 572 houses are full.
Tampa real estate agent Renee Thompson said it’s common for service members to rent homes that are within an hour’s drive of the base.
“No house in today’s market will even come close to the service member’s BAH,” said Thompson, who served in the military. “It’s really disheartening.”
Frustrated by what she called the Defense Department’s lack of transparency in its housing allowance calculations, U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Washington, has introduced a measure that would give the department a year to reexamine 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 massive Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, where many military families struggle to find affordable housing.
“The vast majority of people live off the post, so this is incredibly urgent,” he said.