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Draft NDAA seeks to cut housing costs for military families

With input from Quality of Life panel, lawmakers push to increase the Defense Department's Basic Housing Allowance

Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., is among the lawmakers pushing to increase the Pentagon's Basic Housing Allowance.
Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., is among the lawmakers pushing to increase the Pentagon's Basic Housing Allowance. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Armed Services Committee will take up a defense authorization bill next week that would authorize the Pentagon to spend $1.2 billion to increase housing allowance payments for U.S. servicemembers. 

If the draft National Defense Authorization Act becomes law with that provision intact — and, more importantly, if appropriators provide those funds — it would address one of military families’ top five complaints about their quality of life, according to a 2023 Blue Star Families survey. 

For some servicemembers who live in parts of the country where housing is particularly expensive, such as Washington state, the issue is the No. 1 concern about military life.

Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., represents roughly 50,000 Army and Air Force personnel and civilians who work at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma.

Strickland said in a statement to CQ Roll Call that “access to affordable housing remains the top issue for servicemembers” at the base.

Strickland has been one of Congress’ most vocal advocates in recent years in favor of boosting the housing allowance. She said the raise is “long overdue and will provide much-needed housing stability to servicemembers and their families.”

95 percent payments

The House Armed Services Committee’s Quality of Life Panel advocated the increase in the housing allowances and other changes to improve servicemembers’ lives. 

Those recommendations were incorporated in the first draft of the NDAA — the so-called “chairman’s mark” from Armed Services Chairman Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala.

The Quality of Life Panel — led by Reps. Don Bacon, R-Neb., and Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa. — described how the Basic Allowance for Housing has shrunk in recent years. 

The housing allowance is paid to the approximately 58 percent of active servicemembers who do not live on base but instead must rent in the local commercial housing market.

The allowance is calculated to offset the median cost of rent and utilities, in each of 300 regions in all 50 states. Each region has its own dollar figure, updated annually, and it is adjusted for the servicemember’s rank and number of dependents.

The Government Accountability Office raised concerns in 2021 about the accuracy of those figures, due to what the auditors said were inadequate sample sizes used in the Pentagon assessments.

Nonetheless, from 2005 to 2016, the Defense Department paid each qualifying servicemember 100 percent of their region’s median housing costs, the report said. 

But in the fiscal 2015 NDAA, Congress authorized but did not require the Pentagon to only cover 95 percent of the total as an option to save the department on costs.

From 2019 through today, that is what the department has chosen to do, with the exception of temporary or emergency relief for some high-cost housing markets in 2021 and 2022. 

Effect on the force

At the same time, in the last several years, inflation has hit the housing market hard, just as it has the wider economy.

The 5 percent share of housing costs borne by military families is not supposed to exceed $169 a month per servicemember. However, of the Blue Star Families survey respondents who paid housing expenses above the amount provided by the allowance, 81 percent said they paid more than $200 a month.

Some servicemembers told the Quality of Life Panel that, when housing costs have risen, military families have sometimes had to reduce spending on food to make ends meet. 

Food insecurity is a common problem in the military, according to surveys of servicemembers. A 2020 Pentagon survey found that one-quarter of active U.S. military personnel suffered some level of food insecurity. And RAND reported in 2023 that 16 percent of active servicemembers are plagued by low or very low food security. 

The housing costs and their impact on military family budgets reportedly have had an impact on morale, readiness, recruiting and retention.

“Higher out-of-pocket housing costs may influence military families’ likelihood to recommend military service,” the 2023 Blue Star Families survey report said.

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