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, whose husband is a lieutenant, 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 mid-day, 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 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 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.”
Reports of the housing squeeze that military families are feeling 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, 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 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 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.
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 help families 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 on average 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.
Tampa real estate agent Renee Thompson 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.”
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.
“The vast majority of people live off post, so this is incredibly urgent,” she said.