DOVER AIR FORCE BASE – The Dolce family loves their new four-bedroom home in the Eagle Heights housing area at Dover Air Force Base.
The Dolces – parents Tony and Ronell, teens Nikie and Crystal, 12-year-old Victoria and Alex, 5 – are not an Air Force family. Nor are Tony and Ronell military retirees, or federal civilian employees, or reservists, or government contractors, who also occasionally qualify for military housing residence, depending on active-duty demand.
They are, rather, representatives of a demographic shift – members of the general public who are leasing homes inside military housing areas as the active-duty force shrinks due to budget-cutting pressure.
The active-duty force has fallen only slightly over the past two years, 22,643 out of 1.21 million service members, as of March 31, according to Pentagon figures.
But significantly greater cuts are underway. The Army alone could lose 130,000 troops by 2017 from its 2010 total of 570,000 – even more if mandatory "sequestration" cuts are reimposed in 2016.
The Air Force has already approved thousands of airmen for early separation or retirement this year. It will also trim thousands more by October and is contracting by a total of 16,700 by October 2015, according to Paige Hughes of the Air Force Personnel Center.
Active-duty troops and their families have typically populated most base housing areas within the U.S., which are privately owned and managed under a public/private Defense Department program started in 1996.
In May, Eagle Heights, across Del. 1 from the actual Dover airbase but also secured by a gate guard and security fence, was opened to non-federal civilians, who are last on the Defense Department's standard list of potential eligibles, the "waterfall," who can become eligible due to slackening demand by the active-duty force.
Eagle Heights is operated by Hunt Companies, Inc., which manages 25 housing areas along the East Coast and through the Deep South into Texas under a public-private contract with the military. Hunt is authorized to seek non-military tenants when occupancy remains below 95 percent for more than 90 days, according to Col. Rick Moore, the base commander.
Living on a military base wouldn't be every civilian's cup of tea. But Tony Dolce, a stay-at-home dad working in online sales who moved his family from Newark to Eagle Heights on June 30, doesn't see anything but advantages.
"Safety is a big issue," he said during an interview at the family's new home on Avocado Avenue. "I like the security here."
Dolce also likes the price: He pays $1,091 a month for a Dover home with a backyard and garage on a corner lot in what amounts to a gated community. All yard maintenance is included, as are on-site home repairs and emergency response. Ronell, who works in corrections, appreciates the multiple playgrounds and the availability of church services on base.
"Everything that you need is right here," Tony said.
Only three of the 980 homes in Eagle Heights are currently occupied by civilians, according to Hunt's Dixie Johnson.
Hunt, however, sees a trend. Six of its 25 communities, including Dover, now accept civilians, and she said their numbers are growing.
"In the early years, because of the increase in troops and the war that we are fighting, there were way more active duty [troops] available for housing," she said. "That has since changed a little bit as the drawdown has occurred and sequestration has happened. Absolutely."
In addition, Johnson said, "We're seeing a drawdown in short-term, 30-day notices due to getting out of the military in all of our properties. So that is definitely a trend across our portfolio." She said those troops are being given 10-day, 20-day or 30-day notices that they're being separated from the military, and are coming in to submit a notice to vacate housing.
"The beginning of this year is when we saw the huge reduction," said Deborah Oset, community director for Eagle Heights, "although the projection started about the fourth quarter last year, when they had the reductions in staffing and support for our active-duty military."
Most of those cuts were seen in the junior enlisted category. Of the 580 homes at Dover open to junior enlisted airmen, 69, nearly 12 percent, are currently open, Johnson said.
"Our No. 1 priority is to have 100 percent occupancy all the time," Johnson said. "Because that helps us maintain our homes and our services. And we've taken out debt to build, repair and manage the homes. So it's very important that we fill our homes."
Pentagon officials who oversee installation issues did not respond to a query on whether the other 18 management firms who provide military housing within the U.S. are recording increases in leases to civilians.
Not just anyone can rent at Eagle Heights. In addition to qualifying financially, both Hunt and the Air Force conduct background checks "to ensure the prospective tenants will be a good fit in the neighborhood," Moore said. Those 16 and older must also pass a sexual offender registry check.
So far, it's working out. "We have thus far seen no negative impacts from having nonmilitary tenants in the community, and we do not expect any," Moore said.
Dolce doesn't, either.
"When you think military base, you automatically think ... everybody around you will be so on guard," Tony said. "But it's pretty relaxed, pretty friendly. They are very welcoming. ... Everybody seems like they respect each others' things."