MILITARY UPDATE: GAO notes housing shortages at many bases

By: TOM PHILPOTT
May 23, 2011
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The inability of homebuilders to secure construction loans in the weak economy, combined with major force realignments from Europe and other areas, has created housing shortages for families at many large stateside military bases, the Government Accountability Office reports.

The housing squeeze, which impacts at least 19 bases, isn’t going to be relieved anytime soon and will worsen in some areas, GAO said in a new audit report on the effectiveness of rate-setting under the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) program.

“Adequate and affordable” housing for military families is in short supply at three quarters of bases identified as “growth” installations because they have gained, or will gain, at least 2,000 personnel under long-planned shifts in U.S. force structure.

(Fort Carson is included in the GAO map of bases expecting growth, but was not among the bases visited by auditors.)

The shortage of family housing to rent in surrounding communities exceeds 20 percent at some stateside bases. The policy of the department over the last two decades has been to rely largely on local communities to build housing for base populations, with incentives including housing privatization and build-to-lease agreements with bases.

But recent economic conditions “have made it difficult for developers to obtain funding for new construction projects…particularly for multifamily rental housing projects,” GAO reports.  

GAO found significant housing “deficits” for families at four of the five bases that its auditors visited.

Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., projects a 20 percent family housing shortage (530 units) for its expanding base population. Rents are higher than monthly allowances for many members.

Fort Drum, N.Y., reports a shortage of 1,700 family housing units, and increasing numbers of soldiers are relocating there without families so they can rent smaller units or share housing with other members. More soldiers can only find affordable housing 30 to 40 miles from post.

At Fort Riley, Kan., the gap between supply and demand for family housing is 700 units, a shortage of four percent.  Demand is expected to climb by fall 2011 when all but one of the brigades assigned there will be home from deployment.  

The shortage at Fort Bliss, Texas, is 2,900 family units, 15 percent of demand.  GAO says “junior personnel typically obtain housing on the outskirts of El Paso and experience long commutes.”  

At Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station New River, in North Carolina, the family housing shortage has reached 3,500 units, or 20 percent of demand. Marines there have closed the gap largely by buying or renting mobile homes. The Department of Defense considers mobile homes “inadequate” housing and doesn’t include them in housing availability lists.

The primary focus of the GAO audit was to review the basic allowance for housing program for setting local allowances for members living off base. GAO concludes that the $18 billion-a-year program generally is meeting its goals, and satisfaction is high among recipients. But auditors recommend several ways to enhance its effectiveness.

GAO contends that BAH would be more effective if the local breakout of these costs were shared with housing officials and BAH recipients.  Lacking information on local utility expenses, GAO suggests, can leave renters in high cost areas signing leases that bring unexpected out-of-pocket costs.

Officials with the Defense Travel Management Office, which sets annual BAH rates, told GAO that publishing all three elements of BAH in every housing area could be distracting, but as a compromise, DoD officials will publish, starting in 2012, BAH cost elements nationwide as a percentage range across various types of housing.

Defense officials also accepted GAO recommendations to improve housing availability by sharing of best housing practices between bases, and to expand the definition of “available” rental properties in military housing areas to improve the accuracy of data collection for setting local BAH rates.

The GAO report can be read at: www.gao.gov/new.items/d11462.pdf
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