Democrats in both chambers have been angling for several years to give military families more money to cover housing costs, and they are at it again — this time with some influential GOP support.
Last year, Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., and Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., filed bills that would require the Defense Department to pay 100% of troops’ Basic Allowances for Housing, which cover the cost of commercial housing in the United States for the roughly two-thirds of the U.S. active-duty force that does not live in the military services’ on-base quarters.
The rate of reimbursement was 100% from roughly 2005 to 2015. But for most of the years since then, the Pentagon has paid 95% of the tab while military families have had to cover the other 5%. The fiscal 2015 NDAA (PL 113-291) authorized the reduced housing payments as a cost-saving measure.
How much that allowance amounts to in any particular case hinges on the cost of housing in whatever part of the country a servicemember is stationed, plus his or her rank and number of dependents.
At a March 29 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Strickland questioned Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III about whether he supports restoring the mandate to pay all 100% of a servicemember’s housing costs.
Austin said the matter is under review, and he expressed sympathy for Strickland’s goal.
“I’ve heard you, and I’ve heard our troops and our families and I know this is important,” Austin said. “I would say that we’ll do everything we can to make sure that we’re taking additional stress off our families and off our troops.”
$1 billion annual cost
But Congress may consider taking the matter into its own hands.
When troops have to pay 5% of their housing costs, in most cases it means paying $200 or more per month, according to a survey of servicemembers released last week by Blue Star Families, a support and research group.
“With the increasing lack of housing supply, servicemembers are increasingly being priced out of options to live near their bases, putting strain on our military families,” said Strickland via email on Tuesday. “Our failure to ensure that servicemembers get all of their Basic Allowance for Housing is not only a housing issue, but also an economic, food access, and readiness issue.”
This year, House Republican Don Bacon of Nebraska, a former Air Force officer and member of the Armed Services Committee, will co-sponsor Strickland’s bill. Bacon’s support could be key to swaying other Republicans to consider supporting the measure, including fiscal hawks who may blanch at the price tag.
Armed Services Chairman Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., has tapped Bacon to chair a forthcoming new Armed Services panel focusing on quality of life for military personnel.
“It really ticks me off knowing that some of our military members and their families are not able to find good housing within the allowance they are given,” Bacon said in an email. “We have to guarantee that those who are willing to lay their lives on the line have peace of mind knowing their families are in sound, comfortable, clean housing.”
Strickland planned to file her legislation Thursday in the House during a pro forma session.
Warnock’s companion bill may be introduced next month, aides said.
Austin weighs more housing money
Covering 100% of the housing costs for U.S troops would cost the Defense Department $1 billion a year, Pentagon officials have told lawmakers.
That figure, while substantial, would occur in the context of a Defense Department that requested $842 billion for fiscal 2024.
The Strickland-Warnock legislation would require the higher housing allowance, but the $1 billion would have to be appropriated for the bigger benefit to be realized.
Austin has in the last two years boosted spending on housing allowances in parts of the country where home costs are highest.
Now the department is reviewing whether to do away with the requirement that servicemembers have to bear 5% of the housing costs — one of several military compensation issues being assessed.
The department can do so on its own authority, aides said, because the NDAA law does not require the U.S. military to only pay 95% of the housing allowances — instead the law requires the Pentagon to pay at least 95%.
The Defense Department “is reviewing the [Basic Allowance for Housing] methodology and evaluating whether it is feasible and advisable to phase out, or eliminate, the 5% cost share,” Gil Cisneros, Defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, told Strickland in a November letter. “No decisions have been made at this point.”
$200 a month not covered
Strickland has said that housing is one of the top worries of military personnel who serve at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in her district, part of a region with some of the most expensive housing in America.
That feedback is not unique to the Seattle-Tacoma region. The Blue Star Families 2022 survey of nearly 10,000 U.S. military personnel found that housing costs are — for the first time in the nearly 14 years the survey has existed — one of military families’ top five concerns.
Housing costs have risen more than usual in recent months. Troops’ housing allowances are meant to adjust for more expensive regions but they have not kept pace with price surges in all areas, according to the survey and the lawmakers who support boosting the housing allowance rates.
The 5% share of housing costs borne by military families is not supposed to exceed $169 a month.
However, of the survey respondents who paid housing expenses above the amount provided by the allowance, 81% said they paid more than $200 a month.
On top of high housing costs, many families face the growing difficulty of military spouses finding work that pays enough to cover increasingly expensive child care — if they can find work at all, according to Blue Star Families and other groups.
The basic allowance for housing “has not kept up with the costs of housing, particularly with spousal unemployment so high,” said Jessica Strong, senior director of applied research at Blue Star Families, in an interview.
Food vs. housing trade-off
All these financial pressures have contributed to substantial numbers of troops reporting food insecurity — nearly one in four active-duty servicemembers, according to a Pentagon survey sent to Congress in 2022.
Ironically, U.S. government food-assistance and income-supplement programs have excluded many servicemembers in need because of how program rules are written. In calculating someone’s income for determining eligibility, the amount of a servicemember’s housing allowance is included in the income tally. Doing so typically disqualifies most of those in uniform who need help, anti-hunger advocates say.
A bicameral and bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to drop the housing allowance from income calculations so more troops can get help.
Meanwhile, increasing housing allowances has another benefit, advocates of doing so argue.
The housing allowances the Pentagon pays go to the servicemember to pay rent for private landlords, but when a soldier, for instance, lives on base in barracks, the housing allowance instead goes to the military’s housing contractors, who use it to build, operate and upgrade privatized housing on military bases.
To the degree the allowance goes up from 95% to 100% of local housing costs, more money will go to the privatized housing contractors — funds needed to improve base housing, supporters of the Strickland-Warnock bills say.
“Reduced housing allowances also impact base housing, because it reduces funds used for upkeep and modernization,” Bacon said in his email.
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