The Defense Department’s personnel chief unveiled a list of initiatives Thursday aimed at improving quality of life for service members, including — for the second year in a row — a temporary boost in Basic Allowance for Housing for some active duty members.
In many markets, the housing allowance, which is adjusted at the start of each calendar year, has not kept up with the soaring cost of housing, according to a memo from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. In 28 Military Housing Areas, the allowance falls short of the actual cost of housing by more than 20%.
About 114,267 service members in those 28 areas of the country can look forward to an automatic bump in their BAH, starting in October.
“The action ordered by the Secretary today reflects the department’s commitment to honor our troops’ service and ensure we continue to offer a competitive suite of benefits that makes DoD an employer of choice for those who so selflessly serve,” Gil Cisneros, the defense under secretary for personnel and readiness, told reporters Thursday.
It’s not immediately clear whether there will be an across-the-board percentage increase in troops’ BAH, but the dollar amount of the increase will vary based on location, rank and whether or not there are dependents, as it did in the temporary BAH increases in 2021.
For example, for an E-6 with dependents living in the Kings Bay, Georgia, area, the increase will be $198 a month; for an E-5 with dependents in Boston, it will be more than $1,100 a month, according to Jeri Busch, DoD’s director of military compensation.
The 28 Military Housing Areas are:
- Vandenberg AFB, California
- Twenty Nine Palms MCB, California
- San Diego, California
- Dover AFB/ Rehoboth, Delaware
- Patrick AFB, Florida
- Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Florida
- Orlando, Florida
- West Palm Beach, Florida
- Volusia County, Florida
- Fort Myers Beach, Florida
- Kings Bay/Brunswick, Georgia
- Maui County, Hawaii
- Chicago, Illinois
- Boston, Massachusetts
- Cape Cod–Plymouth, Massachusetts
- Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
- Brunswick, Maine
- Coastal Maine, Maine
- Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri
- Helena, Montana
- Wilmington, North Carolina
- Northern New Jersey
- Newport, Rhode Island
- Providence, Rhode Island
- Beaufort/Parris Island, South Carolina
- Knoxville, Tennessee
- Houston, Texas
- Quantico/Woodbridge, Virginia
For the past two years, service members in many locations have battled an unusually volatile housing market, with rentals being in short supply and priced well beyond troops’ housing allowances.
Some have resorted to living in RVs on installation campgrounds; some have rented housing far from base; some have had to live in unsafe areas, others have left their families behind as they tried to find housing.
Many who have wanted to purchase homes have found themselves outbid by other buyers offering tens of thousand of dollars more than the asking price. In the fall of 2021, DoD authorized temporary increases for troops in 56 areas, but troops had to apply for the increase and show the need.
Austin directed his office to review the current basic allowance for housing levels “to ensure that calculations reflect the unusually dynamic fluctuations in the housing market.”
Some of the other quality of life initiatives that were announced are directed at long-standing issues in which fixes were already in the works.
Chief among them is a new allowance designed to augment basic pay for troops whose locations and household sizes put them under the poverty line.
Mandated by the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, the Basic Needs Allowance will bring troops up to 130% of the poverty level for their particular situation, starting in January.
For example, an E-3 with a nonworking spouse and four children living in San Diego would see their gross monthly pay, including the new allowance, bumped up from $4,700 to more than $5,000.
“We’ve estimated roughly, and it could be as little as $990 for a year, upwards of $30,000 for an E-1 with a very large family (nine or more dependents),” Busch said.
At the commissary, prices will be cut to reflect at least a 25% savings over what troops would pay at off-base supermarkets.
That savings is higher than the congressionally mandated 23.7% savings set when Congress allowed DoD to start adjusting commissary prices to reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars required to operate commissaries.
Officials didn’t provide any comment about whether they will allow commissaries to go back to selling groceries at the price that represents the simple cost from the supplier.
To ease the burden of permanent change-of-station moves, the services will permanently cover lodging expenses for 14 days during moves within the contiguous U.S., with up to 60 days for moves into markets with housing shortages, starting in October.
And for junior enlisted service members, E-1 to E-6, dislocation allowance to cover personal moving expenses will be automatically paid out a month prior to move dates, starting in October.
On the child care front, Austin wrote that the department will “make significant investments in Child Development Program (CDP) facilities and infrastructure to further expand our capacity to provide quality child care,” but did not offer more details.
Lack of child care has been an issue for military families for decades. Lawmakers have repeatedly grilled service leaders about their inadequate requests for child development centers. Information was not available to define the dollar amounts or number of child care centers that define the “significant investment” Austin is directing.
Child care staff will get a 50% discount on services if they choose to bring their own child, though just one, to on-base facilities “to help attract more talented staff and to increase capacity,” according to the memo, also taking effect in October.
There are also plans to improve access to the Military Child Care in Your Neighborhood and expand a pilot program that helps cover the cost of in-home child care.
There are several initiatives aimed at helping spouses find jobs:
- Speed up the creation of seven more occupational licensure interstate compacts that allow spouses licensed to professionally practice in one state to skip relicensing requirements when they move to another.
- Hire more spouses directly, on a noncompetitive basis, for Defense Department jobs.
- Begin a pilot program to match spouses with paid private-sector fellowships, which begins in 2023.
- Add 10% more companies to the Military Spouse Employment Partnership program by January.
Five of the seven licensure agreements have been in development for nearly two years: teaching; social work; cosmetology; massage therapy, and dentistry/dental hygiene. Two more added since early 2021 are school psychologists and dietician nutritionists.
“Over the past year, we have focused on ways to take even better care of our Service members and their families,” Austin wrote in the memo. “I am proud of the progress that we have made, and we will keep driving hard to do even more. I understand the extraordinary pressures that our military families face — and we are determined to do right by them, every step of the way.”
Asked whether there are more items on a wish list, to include overall pay raises or other initiatives that would need congressional funding, Cisneros demurred.
“There’s a number of issues that I think the secretary is considering,” he said. “... And, again, this is something that the secretary takes very personal and, you know, he is continuously considering ideas and how we can better make changes, and he will continue to do that. And again, this is not the end, and we will continue to see what we can do to improve family life for service members and their families.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
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.