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Cost of rent outpaces housing allowance for military families

Gabriel C. Pérez

A sharp rise in housing prices has left some enlisted people scrambling for an affordable place to live.

Wherever you go, the price of rent is going up. Earlier this summer, the median monthly rent in the U.S. passed $2,000 for the first time ever.

That’s a problem for most renters, but particularly when you have a fixed housing benefit from your employer – as members of the military do. The housing allowance that branches of the U.S. military give to their members has not kept pace with the cost of rent.

R.J. Rico, housing reporter for the Associated Press, spoke to the Texas Standard about the hardships that some military families have experienced because of the sharp rise in rent.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Some members of the military live in housing provided by the Army or the Air Force or what have you, but those who don’t receive a basic allowance for housing off-base. Can you give us some examples of how much more some families are having to pay for housing lately beyond their basic allowance? 

R.J. Rico: Yeah, absolutely. So military families, they’re moving often. They are expecting, when they move to a place, to have their basic allowance covering their housing expenses, 95%. But they’re greeted with the reality that that’s not really going to cut it for where they want to live, for the school districts that they think are suitable for their kids. So they’re either really having to go deep into their pockets, pay $600, $700, $800 more a month, or I’ve heard stories of families who go for RVs. The service member may live in an RV and the family lives in another house. Or they go to a place that’s more affordable, but it’s an hour, hour and a half drive from their post. So you’re dealing with really long traffic.

You mentioned 95% – is that what the housing allowance is supposed to pay for, 95% of one’s rent? Where does that figure come from?

Yes; that comes from the Department of Defense. When they calculate their housing allowance, they say that it will cover 95% of your living costs. So that’s both of rent and utilities, supposedly.

“Supposedly,” I guess is the operative word here. Where are they getting the 95% figure from – 95% of what, especially with rents rising everywhere?

So the DOD, they are not especially transparent about how they do this. They have a very detailed PDF about all these factors, and they hire contractors every year to go point by point to get this figure. However, they don’t really tell you what comps they’re using. So housing activists fear that they’re really looking at maybe someplace off-base that isn’t a great area and then calculating that as the rental price, when really military families aren’t trying to live there.

Is there any indication that these officials who operate without so much transparency, as you describe it, might actually increase the housing allowance, given what some of these families are going through? 

They do increase the the allowance every year. The issue is just rents have skyrocketed so much that it’s not been enough. They only do this once a year, but last fall, they did a three-month increase – October, November, December – because they recognized how out of control the discrepancy was. But they have not reinstituted that since then, and rents have only continued to rise.

What might the military be thinking of long-term – are they thinking of raising the ceiling permanently? Have you heard anything like that? What about other models the military could use to house service members and their families? 

The military has not said what their long-term changes are. One issue is on-base housing is so in high demand; there are huge waitlists. So there definitely is an interest for them to build more units on base. That takes a few years, of course, so that is not an immediate solution. Members of Congress have really pushed for them to change how they do their calculations. Does it really make sense for them only to be calculating housing allowances once a year when the data is out there that rents each month are changing? And also, they want more transparency for how the military is calculating neighborhood costs.