Pentagon plans to increase off-base housing allowance

Proposal would eliminate personnel's share of rent

January 07, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In another effort to boost military recruiting and retention, the Pentagon plans to spend $3 billion during the next five years to boost the housing allowance for personnel who live in off-base housing, defense officials said yesterday.

The proposal would affect about 750,000 personnel -- more than half the active duty force of 1.4 million -- who pay an average of 19 percent of their housing costs out of their own pockets to live off base, while the government pays the remaining rental cost.

During the next five years, those costs to soldiers would be eliminated, under the Pentagon plan, which would be included in next year's budget. It would require congressional approval, but key Republicans have indicated strong support.

"This historic boost to the housing allowance is another confirmation of the department's vigorous and sustained commitment to the quality of life of our men and women in uniform," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said yesterday as he unveiled the plan at the U.S. Marine Corps Base at Camp Pendleton, Calif. "It augments our ability to attract and retain quality individuals for America's military needs."

With government-funded, on-base housing in short supply or substandard at many bases around the country, most military personnel are forced to live off base. Those who live off base receive a housing allowance based on their rank, marital status and family size and the median rental cost in their area.

Congress has said that 85 percent of the average cost should be borne by the government, with the remaining 15 percent paid by the service member. But the average out-of-pocket cost to service members is actually 19 percent, according to defense officials and military family advocates.

Joyce Raezer, deputy associate director of the National Military Family Association, said young soldiers with families are burdened by the current system. "They're spending more money out of pocket just to pay for housing," she said.

Under the plan, a corporal or petty officer third-class would receive an extra $28 per month in housing allowance under the 2001 budget, and that would increase to an extra $111 per month in five years. For a sergeant or petty officer first-class, the extra housing allowance would amount to $35 per month and rise to $175 in five years. (The current national average allowance is about $760.)

Raezer said Congress has supported increasing the allowance and would likely endorse the $160 million increase to the housing allowances proposed for 2001. That money is designed to bring down the service member's out-of-pocket cost to below 15 percent.

Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican who chairs the Military Personnel Subcommittee, praised Cohen's plan. "This is nontaxable money which goes directly into our uniformed men and women's pockets, which gives them greater spending power," he said.

Yesterday, defense officials did not specify the source of the $3 billion to finance the plan, with one saying that officials do not plan to seek an increase in the overall annual Pentagon budget of about $265 billion. A Pentagon statement said only that the housing allowance money has been shifted from another part of the military budget.

Plans to boost the military housing allowance come on the heels of this year's 4.8 percent pay raise -- the largest since 1981 -- and an increase in the military pension from 40 percent to 50 percent of military pay.

There are also plans to improve on-base housing by 2010. Defense officials say that about 60 percent of the 300,000 housing units have been deemed substandard.

As part of that initiative, privately-built new units will replace old government housing at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and bases in Washington state and Texas. About 7,000 soldiers and their family members at Fort Meade would benefit from the program.

These "quality of life" efforts are designed to reverse a nagging retention and recruitment problem that has troubled the military for the past several years, caused in part by a robust economy that has offered wages and benefits superior to the military's.

As last year closed, the Air Force had a personnel shortage of about 10,000 because of too few recruits and too many airmen leaving for jobs in commercial aviation. While the Army and the Navy met their recruiting goals last year, only the Marine Corps met both its recruiting and retention goals.

The plight of the average soldier is also drawing the notice of presidential candidates.

GOP front-runner George W. Bush, the Texas governor, has called for another $1 billion in military pay increases and vowed to rebuild inadequate military housing if elected.

John McCain, the Arizona senator who is challenging Bush, has also called for a military pay increase and criticized the fact that 12,000 soldiers are forced to use food stamps to make ends meet.

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