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Military Seeing Cutbacks In Housing Allowance

Evening Edition

Beginning this month, many members of the military will get a little extra in their paychecks. KPBS’ Steve Walsh explains why San Diego families aren’t celebrating this latest increase in the Basic Allowance for Housing.

Daniel and Gloria Burke wait outside the home they would like to rent in Chula Vista, Jan. 4, 2016.

Aired 1/11/16 on KPBS News.

Members of the military are getting a slight bump in their basic housing allowance this year, but it won't cover the overall cost.

Lt. Daniel Burke and his wife Gloria have learned that in San Diego, you keep your fingers crossed when you search for a place to rent. They’ve been searching since June, after he got word that the Navy was relocating him to Point Loma. In their last posting in Connecticut, they just set up a few appointments before deciding on a place. San Diego was a different story.

“It’s very competitive,” Daniel Burke said. “This is the first time we’ve gone to a viewing and have other people show up. It’s a race to drop an application at certain places.”

They have two small dogs and a cat, so they wanted a house with a yard — big enough to raise children someday. They ended up in Chula Vista, which has a large concentration of military families.

Living in Chula Vista means Lt. Burke will have a 30-minute commute back to San Diego. They didn’t even look near his base at Point Loma, once a traditional bastion of military housing. Just like Coronado Island — military families have been priced out of this housing market for years.

This month, military in San Diego and across the country will see, on average, a 3.4 percent boost in their Basic Allowance for Housing, the amount of money they receive to pay for housing. This aims to cover the rising housing costs nationwide. But overall, Congress is actually cutting back.

Last year, the government covered 100 percent of the cost of off-base housing. As part of a Congressional budget deal — beginning this year — the military will cover only 98 percent of the cost. By 2019, the government will pick up just 95 percent of the tab for living off base — even in high-cost markets like San Diego.

“To not give that full amount will definitely mean changes for military families and personnel moving forward,” said Skylar Olsen, senior economist for Zillow, which looked at the cost of military housing before and after the recession.

On average, military families pay 34 percent more for housing than other Americans. Navy and Marine families are hit hardest — because their bases are typically located along pricey coastal areas, with San Diego being one of the most expensive military housing markets in the country.

Derek Barksdale, owner of Military Mutual, is pictured at his office, Jan. 4, 2016.

“I just don’t know how someone can get 95 percent of a house, and just have to suck it up for the next five percent,” said Derek Barksdale, owner of Military Mutual. His real estate firm handles only military clients. Before he retired, he spent 21 years in the Navy, stationed in San Diego. He’s watched military families move farther away as the price of housing rose. His company is about to open an office in Murrieta — nearly an hour away from the Marines at Camp Pendleton.

“People are forced to do that," he said. "To have something that they can call a home and that is (a) safe environment with good school districts. They’re willing to do that.”

Even with the rising cost, Barksdale encourages his clients to buy a home rather than rent, to get the most out of their housing allowance. He said it was one reason he could justify sticking with the Navy until retirement, despite earning a lower pay than the private sector.

There was a time when then the military only paid 80 percent of the cost of living off base. The military has been paying the full cost since 2005.

This year the federal government will spend $21 billion on servicemen living in the community. Congress is looking at making other changes to trim the amount. One of the ideas includes cutting the amount two career military families receive. Daniel and Gloria Burke nervously await any changes.

“We’ll just have to be a little more frugal in the decisions we make,” Daniel Burke said.

After months of looking, they were able to beat out four other couples to rent their home in Chula Vista. So for now at least, their search is over.

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