WASHINGTON — When the Defense Department announces increases in the Basic Allowance for Housing, sometimes rents immediately increase in the civilian community, a soldier told Army senior leaders, during a town hall Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army.
“In the last year, my rent has gone up and matched every single BAH increase so it’s made no difference to my yearly income,” said the soldier, based at Fort Carson, Colorado.
“Is there anything we’re going to put in place to protect service members so they [don’t have to] live paycheck to paycheck anymore?”
That housing allowance is a key financial component for military families, and over the last few years, service members have gotten boosts in pay and BAH to counter the increases in cost of living. “However, as soon as those pay increases are announced, the surrounding community increases the cost of living and the rent,” said the soldier.
The senior leaders discussed some of their efforts across a myriad of areas to improve the lives of soldiers and families, including some areas where they need to push for change at the national level. Troops and families laid out some of their concerns, like the rent increases, to Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Randy George, and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Weimer.
Information on military pay and BAH rates is public knowledge. The issue of how BAH rates affect the rental market in the local community has been brought up for decades, and has been periodically discussed by lawmakers and service officials, as well as how BAH rates are determined.
“We talk about this all the time,” said George, adding that he, too, has seen the lock-step increases happen in communities near installations. He added that the Army doesn’t control the landlords who provide housing in the civilian community, and “some of this is capitalism,” George said. “They’re facing inflation, too.” Officials have floated some ideas such as giving a tax break to landlords who rent to service members, to alleviate some of the effects.
“This is a little bit of the dark side of capitalism,” said Wormuth. “Landlords are doing what’s in their own interest. We, at our level nationally…need to talk to members of Congress to highlight this issue.” Garrison commanders also need to engage with their local community leaders and congressional representatives about the issue, she said.
When the Army is considering where to put soldiers when they’re increasing force structure, this could be a factor that could be considered. They do an analysis of a variety of factors in determining the best locations, including community support for service members and families. The Army could “put a little pressure on some of the property owners, to work with the business community and local authorities,” she said, “and say, ‘Hey, if you are constantly raising rates every time we raise BAH, that’s not supporting us. And frankly, it’s making it harder for everyone in Colorado Springs to be in an affordable place.”
Senior leaders will also weigh in on another nationwide issue — states’ implementation of a new law that requires them to allow military spouses to transfer professional licenses following a permanent change of station move. “We’ve seen uneven implementation of that,” Wormuth said. “So we need to continue working with governors across the country to get that law implemented.”
The law took effect in January, aimed at easing the strains on military spouses who face bureaucratic and expensive processes to transfer their license to a new location in order to work. It affects a variety of occupations ranging from nursing to cosmetology to teaching, for example.
There’s a limited amount of money to address all quality of life issues immediately, and while leaders are pumping money into barracks and other needs, they’re also looking at some changes that could make a difference without funding, in regulations and policies, for example. Service officials have looked for a long time at what can be done to reduce the number of PCS moves, George said. And they’re looking at ways to get at the shortage of child care, especially trying to deal with the problems of recruiting staff for military child care centers.
A perennial problem is getting information to soldiers and families about the resources that are available.
But navigating those resources can be a problem, too, as one Army Reserve soldier said.
“My wife said she would rather deal with Comcast than try to find information from the Army,” he said. That comment got a reaction from the packed crowd at the popular forum.
George responded by bringing up the new Army app, MyArmyPost, which was introduced at the annual meeting. The information is individually tailored to the person using the app, with local real-time information about their installations, such as which gates are open, and where there are traffic backups, as well as details about resources, programs and services available. He wants feedback on the app, he said.
Information is a two-way street, and the leaders urged soldiers and families to communicate their concerns.
Enlisted leaders need to develop trust, be aware, and know about the problems of their troops, whether it’s conditions in the barracks, issues with family housing, or health care, said Weimer.
“We’re struggling on the health care piece. But the noncommissioned officer should probably be the first to know if someone is struggling with health care,” he said. “That’s being cohesive. That’s being a good team lead.”
When the audience was polled on their opinions of top quality of life issues where the Army should focus its efforts, at the top of the list were: health care, housing and barracks, PCS moves, child care and spouse employment.
“None of these surprise us today. We absolutely know they are important,” Weimer said. “We absolutely know these are priorities, and we’re taking a look at each and every one of them.
“They’re all difficult. They’re wicked hard problems. But I want to be sure you know we care about these things.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.