WASHINGTON — The Army continues to develop on-post housing communities that provide Soldiers and families access to safe and habitable living spaces and other amenities that typically exceed what the service member can afford on the local economy, a housing expert said last week.
The Army’s on-post housing inventory accommodates an average of 30-35% of Soldiers assigned to an installation, with the remaining living in surrounding communities, said Scott Chamberlain, assistant for housing and chief of capital ventures within the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Housing and Partnerships.
Approximately 1 million members rely on basic allowance for housing, a U.S.-based entitlement at the cost of $22 billion each year. Soldiers receive BAH whether they live on or off post.
The percentage of personnel living on an installation can vary, he said. For example, Fort Irwin, California, is roughly 50 miles away from a neighboring community. The service created enough housing or government quarters to support approximately 90% of its military population.
“BAH enables service members to live off post at a level comparable to their civilian counterparts,” Chamberlain said in an interview. “Aside from a few exceptions that apply to essential personnel, the majority of service members living in the U.S. can choose to live wherever they want.”
The Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness receives housing unit rental cost data from multiple sources to determine the largest portion of the military’s annual BAH rates, he said.
Each rate is based on a location’s median rental cost added to an average price for electricity, heating fuel, water, and sewage. A Soldier’s BAH rate is not designed to cover all off-post housing expenses.
To determine each rate, the Department of Defense collects rental rate data for apartments, townhouses or duplexes, and single‐family units of varying sizes. The department then relies on “anchor points” to set military housing BAH rates based on a Soldier’s paygrade and dependent status, Chamberlain said.
“For example, an E-5 with dependents has an anchor point set for a two-bedroom townhouse or duplex,” Chamberlain said. “A three-bedroom, single-family home is not an anchor point until the rank of chief warrant officer three, while a four-bedroom, single-family home is not an anchor point until the lieutenant colonel rank.”
The Army’s Residential Communities Initiative program, or RCI, is responsible for approximately 98% of the on-post housing in the United States, with the remaining 2% owned by the Army.
“The Army’s RCI program contributes to recruitment, readiness, and retention by increasing the on-post quality of life for service members and their families,” Chamberlain said.
With an inventory of over 87,000 homes, RCI has built close to 37,000 new houses and renovated 44,000 more in the past 25 years.
“Housing allowance rates for junior enlisted are based on smaller housing unit anchor points,” he said.
“On-post RCI houses for junior enlisted are built [or renovated] to a three-bedroom, two-bathroom standard,” he added. “Therefore, the junior enlisted RCI homes provided on an installation are larger and better quality.”
Chamberlain added that on-post housing is generally larger in square footage when compared to off-post dwellings. Rental costs for similar sized off-post homes could be considerably higher than a Soldier’s BAH entitlement.
For example, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom townhome outside Fort Sill, Oklahoma, can cost around $1,300 to rent per month, with an additional $200 for utilities. A Soldier ranked E-4 and below with dependents receives close to $900 in BAH each month, leaving around $600 for additional expenses.
On-post housing also offers other financial benefits, such as no or low move-in fees, no credit checks, pest control, trash removal services, a yard and 24-hour housing maintenance, he said. There are also no security or pet deposits, and no associated fees to connect utilities.
Depending on the installation, Soldiers and families may have access to community centers with family activities and events, outdoor playgrounds, dog parks, pools, fitness rooms, and other resident services, Chamberlain said.
Further, if a home were to become uninhabitable, occupants could also reach out to their privatized housing partners to find an alternative place to stay, either through an on-base hospitality suite or in a paid hotel, he added.
“A lot of our housing had to deal with frozen pipes in Texas and Fort Sill during winter storm Uri in February,” Chamberlain said. “We had hundreds of families that had to move out of their homes. They packed their bags and went to hotels, all paid for by our privatized companies.”
The majority of Army communities are based upon pre-determined, military-grade divisions to allow Soldiers and families on similar stages of life to live in the same area. These divisions include: junior enlisted to junior noncommissioned officer, senior NCO, company-grade officers, field-grade officers, and general officers.
“These groupings work well, as it helps prevent a sergeant from living next door to the commanding general or their first sergeant,” he said.
Some situations might require a junior Soldier with a large family to relocate to a larger four-bedroom home in a higher-ranked neighborhood. Chamberlain said the family’s BAH contributions would be comparably less than the other Soldiers living in the area.
“When we set it up to have a three-bedroom home as our minimum, we understood that we were subsidizing costs for the junior ranks,” he said. “We aren’t trying to subsidize the cost by charging everybody more money. We just built more homes to provide top quality housing for all Soldiers.”
Higher-ranked Soldiers receive BAH rates comparable to local market costs. In contrast, a junior enlisted Soldier could not afford to rent a similar larger home off an installation with privatized housing, he added.
“For service members authorized a housing allowance, living on post is voluntary and members have the option of living where they choose,” he said. “I think it’s great that Soldiers choose to live on our installations because of all the benefits Army housing has to offer.”