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Survey: 70 percent of troops say they pay out of pocket for housing

Aug. 13, 2013 - 12:47PM   |  
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On the heels of an announcement by Pentagon officials that they will consider making service members pay a portion of their off-base housing costs out of pocket, a majority of troops say they’re already footing part of their rent bill — and for many, a large part.

An Aug. 5-12 unscientific survey by Military Times asked readers if their current BAH payments fully cover the rent for their off-base housing.

Among 4,235 respondents, 27 percent said they pay “a lot” out of pocket, while 43 percent said they pay “a little” out of pocket. Only 23 percent said they roughly break even, and just 9 percent said their BAH rate is “more than they need” to pay their rent.

Yet since 2005, the end of a five-year Pentagon effort to bolster allowance rates, BAH theoretically has covered 100 percent of average off-base housing costs.

So why do 70 percent of service members say their allowance does not go far enough?

The answer likely lies in a little-known aspect of the complicated BAH system.

When Pentagon officials say BAH covers 100 percent of average off-base housing costs, the operative word is “average” — and that average is tied to specific types of housing assigned to different paygrades, based on a notional expectation of what their housing needs might be.

For example, defense officials expect that for unmarried junior enlisted members in paygrades E-1 through E-4, a one-bedroom apartment should be sufficient — so that’s the type of housing surveyed to calculate the BAH rate for those paygrades.

Similarly, unmarried midgrade enlisted members and junior officers have their BAH rates calculated on surveys of rental costs for two-bedroom apartments.

The housing standards gradually expand as paygrades increase, to two- and three-bedroom townhouses and duplexes and then to three-bedroom single-family homes for the most senior officers.

For troops with dependents, the housing standards start out a bit larger: two-bedroom apartments for junior enlisted members in the E-1 through E-4 paygrades, then to two- and three-bedroom townhouses and duplexes, and finally to three- and four-bedroom single-family homes for senior members.

Any gap between BAH rates and what troops actually pay for their off-base housing is largely the result of many members wanting more housing than the assigned standard used to calculate allowance rates for their particular paygrade.

For example, a married E-4 might want a two-bedroom townhouse rather than a two-bedroom apartment — and if so, that E-4 very likely will have to pay a portion of his housing costs out of pocket.

The Defense Department’s housing standards, which have not changed in many years, have in the past come under criticism from military advocacy groups who say they are outdated for today’s seasoned, highly educated volunteer force.

In particular, it has been noted that the only enlisted members who rate BAH sufficient to rent a single-family home are married E-9s; all other enlisted members are expected to be satisfied with townhomes and apartments.

The Government Accountability Office has noted the potential shortfalls of the housing standards. In a 2001 report on BAH, auditors noted that “questions remain concerning the appropriateness of the housing standards DoD uses to determine the rates for each military paygrade.”

“Service headquarters officials stated that some members believe that the standards have not been properly associated with military paygrades,” the GAO said. “The officials noted that when DoD determined standards on the basis of housing occupied by civilians with comparable incomes, DoD did not consider as part of military income the special pay and bonuses received by many members.

“As a result, the rates established on the basis of the standards make appropriate housing unaffordable for members in some military paygrades. Some officials stated that the minimum standard for members with dependents in the lowest paygrades should be a two-bedroom townhouse instead of a two-bedroom apartment and that the standard for members with dependents in paygrade E-7 should be a single-family detached house instead of a townhouse.”

Upgrading those housing standards, however, would mean increasing BAH payments to cover more expansive housing for more service members — exactly the opposite of what DoD is aiming for in the current era of sequestration.

The housing standards used to calculate BAH are likely to resurface as a point of contention if the Pentagon unveils any formal proposal to have service members pay more out of pocket for their off-base housing.

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