Junior Sailors Scrambling for a Place to Live After the Navy Shutters Its Barracks at Key West

Naval Air Station Key West
Naval Air Station Key West houses air-to-air combat fighter aircraft of all military services and provides pier-side support to U.S. and foreign naval vessels.. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cody R. Babin/U.S. Navy photo)

Junior sailors stationed at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, are struggling to find homes after the closure of two of the base's barracks sent about 60 service members looking for alternative places to stay. It's an incredibly expensive housing market, including nearly $4,000-a-month trailers the Navy had built to market for "leisure travel.

In an email to Military.com, base spokeswoman Danette Baso Silvers said that the base decided to shutter the housing for single, junior sailors "to conduct much needed repairs and renovations." According to the base website, the pair of buildings could house about 100 sailors.

The Navy says that those sailors have a variety of options, but two who spoke with Military.com echoed a spate of social media posts from troops at the base saying that the alternatives are prohibitively expensive or otherwise not workable.

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Chief among those options are newly created "vacation rental units" -- two-bedroom mobile homes intended for the base's Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR) team to rent to vacationers.

According to flyers distributed to sailors in early May that were reviewed by Military.com, sailors would be charged $127 a day, or between $3,810 and $3,937 a month, to stay in the two-bedroom vacation rentals.

That is the same rate that the MWR charges eligible vacationers but, split between two service members, the rent is within monthly housing allowances for single junior sailors. The base has 36 such trailers available.

A flyer sent out last week informed barracks residents that the rate for the trailers would increase to $142 per day in October.

One sailor who spoke with Military.com called the option "ridiculous," considering the price was for a trailer. 

To start, an E-1 to E-4 sailor with no dependents receives a housing allowance of $2,364 for Key West. However, several websites show that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment on the island begins at around $3,000. One sailor who spoke with Military.com and has been impacted by move-out explained that, even if you're willing to pay the difference, finding an available unit is a challenge. 

Military.com is not disclosing the identities of sailors affected by the closing of the barracks who were interviewed for this article due to their concerns about retaliation from Navy leadership.

Many rentals also require first and last month's rent and a security deposit up front -- a prohibitive sum of money for a young sailor.

The next option -- privatized base housing -- is also a nonstarter for young, single sailors. According to one sailor, the wait-list for privatized housing stands at more than 130 single sailors. The other sailor said they were part of a group of three sailors who applied to be roommates and were told they would be waiting four to six months.

"Since we're all single sailors, if a married family with kids comes, we get pushed back, and pushed back, and pushed back," that sailor added.

When asked about the wait, Silvers said that the current wait-list for privatized housing "can be up to four months."

"This is why the vacation rentals are an option in the interim," she added.

Silvers said that the command is "working directly with the Sailors living in the affected barracks to assist in finding them locations to live" and that closing the barracks was necessary for improvements to housing.

"These $11 million renovations will include updates to the HVAC system, fire alarms system, and other renovations and facility improvements," Silvers said. Of the 60 sailors impacted by the barracks closure, only 19 have yet to find alternative housing, she added.

One sailor told Military.com that two of their fellow sailors "found something on Craigslist where they're living with eight other people in a house."

Both sailors who spoke with Military.com also noted that the plan seems to fail to take into account service members who are reporting to the command and need a place to stay while they arrange a permanent living situation. 

"My biggest worry is people coming from A school or right out of boot camp who have no savings, and they're told to find a place in 10 days -- which is impossible to do," one sailor said.

The military typically pays for 10 days of lodging for service members changing duty stations.

One sailor who spoke with Military.com explained that they knew a service member who resorted to sleeping in a tent to cover the gap, while another was forced to send his wife and child back to their home state while they slept on a fellow sailor's couch.

"The way this base is run, I feel like it's more focused towards the betterment of retirees going on vacation and the pilots being on vacation while they're training and not really towards the people who are working here," one sailor said.

The issues with the barracks in Key West are just the latest in a string of recent events in which the Navy has struggled with the basic housing needs of its sailors.

In February, a Navy Times investigation revealed that the service has known about infrastructure issues plaguing the barracks at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, for years -- including a lack of hot water -- but been unable to address them. Hundreds of junior military members were moved out of the affected buildings the Monday after the Navy Times report was published.

More recently, Military.com reported that the Navy didn't disclose a string of suicides aboard the aircarft carrier George Washington. One of the key issues that plagued junior sailors was being forced to move onto a ship that was an active construction zone, complete with constant noise from power tools and outages to services like electricity and hot water.

Shortly after that reporting, and a speech from a senior leader stating that the Navy could do little to help, the GW's commander told the crew that anyone living aboard would be allowed to move off-ship.

When Military.com asked Silvers why the Navy Gateway Inn & Suites or the Navy Lodge -- hotels run by the Navy's own Exchange Command -- were not considered as a fix in Key West, like they were in the case of Bethesda and the George Washington, she said it was because "they are not long-term solutions."

"It was determined that providing these Sailors [Basic Allowance for Housing] and the option to live out in town or elsewhere on base was the best option for long-term renovations," she added. 

When asked about the vacation trailers, Silvers said that "if the Sailor chooses to stay in vacation rentals until the end of their tour that is a long-term option."

When asked about the disparity between the housing allowance and actual rent prices, Silvers said that leadership "understand the price of housing off base, which is why we have offered the rental units and the [privatized base] housing to these Sailors."

In the meantime, the sailors at Key West say their concerns have fallen on deaf ears. A note posted by a Key West sailor to social media said that "my chief just shrugged at me and told me that's how it is, my [Command Master Chief] laughed at me at all hands when I asked about it, and the civilian department heads tell me their hands are tied."

One of the sailors who spoke with Military.com said the consensus they got from leadership is "we've given you [a housing allowance], you figure it out."

Editor's Note: After publication, a spokesperson for the Navy reached out to Military.com suggesting that sailors affected by housing shortages at the base contact the Housing Service Center at (305) 293-4127/(305) 293-4466 or KeyWest_Housing@navy.mil

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin. 

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