Many active-duty military families who live outside installations are paying more than $200 a month out of pocket for housing costs above what they’re getting in their Basic Allowance for Housing, according to a newly released survey.

“For military families, finding housing that fulfills both location and family needs can be a costly balancing act,” stated researchers in the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, conducted by Blue Star Families in collaboration with Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

And with greater out-of-pocket housing costs comes increased financial stress, the researchers found in their analysis.

By law, Basic Allowance for Housing is designed to cover, on average, 95 percent of service members’ housing rental and utility costs in the private sector, and varies by location, rank and whether there are dependents. Those living in the local community have varying costs that may be more or less than their BAH.

So theoretically, military families are left to pick up 5 percent of their housing costs, which according to the Defense Department, should range between $70 to $158 a month in 2021. The majority of the families in the survey reported they’re paying more than $200 a month extra in housing costs.

The survey is a snapshot of a variety of topics related to military life, and not a random sample. About 10,926 people chose to participate in the online survey, which was fielded in September and October of 2020. Of those, 6,767 people completed it. About 45 percent of participants, or more than 3,000 people, were spouses or domestic partners of active-duty members, 17 percent were active-duty members (including Guard and Reserve); 20 percent were veterans/retirees; and 10 percent were spouses of veterans.

The demographics of those who chose to take the online survey aren’t representative of the military community as a whole; for example, only 6 percent of active-duty family/service member participants were junior enlisted, compared with the 43 percent in the current military population. There was also a larger proportion of female service members — 50 percent — than in the current active-duty population, where about 17 percent are female.

Researchers also noted that impacts from the pandemic may have put additional constraints on the housing market, which may have affected service members’ costs.

Generally, about two-thirds of active-duty service members and military families live in the local community. About one-third live in privatized housing projects or government-owned housing.

A report earlier this year by the Government Accountability Office found flaws with the way rates are set for Basic Allowance for Housing, and stated defense officials need to do a better job collecting and monitoring the data used to set the rates — to make sure the rates accurately reflect the cost of suitable housing for service members.

According to this Blue Star Families survey, 83 percent of active-duty family participants reported varying levels of out-of-pocket costs. And of those, more than three-quarters reported their costs exceeded the DoD expected range, going above $200 a month out of pocket.

These out-of-pocket costs also correlated with increased stress. For example, 62 percent of active-duty families paying $200 to $299 out of pocket above their BAH reported “some” or “a great deal of” financial stress, according to the researchers. And 74 percent of those paying $700 to $799 out of pocket reported “some” or “a great deal” of the stress.

Researchers also parsed out the effects based on different factors that are important to families in choosing where to live. For example, among families who listed “desirable school for children” as one of their important factors, 76 percent pay more than $200 a month in costs above their BAH.

Pets are also important to military families; about 41 percent in this survey said the ability to have a pet is an important factor in their housing decision. Pet-friendly housing is more limited, and can also be significantly more expensive.

Researchers recommend that Congress restore the Basic Allowance for Housing to 100 percent of the average housing rental costs in the private sector. They also recommend commissioning a report on the costs associated with, and barriers to, pet ownership for military families, including examining implications for permanent change of station (PCS) moves and leasing housing on base or off base.

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.

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