Service Members Are Struggling to Afford Housing. This Lawmaker Says She’s Working to Fix the Problem.

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Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty talks with Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland.
Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, the adjutant general talks with Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland, representative from Washington’s 10th Congressional District at The Washington National Guard’s Museum, Camp Murray, Wash. on July 8, 2021. (U.S. National Guard photo by Joseph Siemandel)

Updating the formula for housing allowances, making sure troops get a full stipend, and building more housing on bases: Those are a few of the ways a member of the House Armed Services Committee wants to make housing more affordable for service members.

In a time when Congress is bitterly divided along partisan lines, Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., is hopeful that housing and other issues that affect service members' quality of life, including child care and food insecurity, can engender rare bipartisan support.

"There are some people who are there on the committee to not seriously do the work, but I do believe that there are enough people when they think very carefully about readiness and taking care of our families that they understand that this is a national and global security issue," Strickland, a second-term member of the Armed Services Committee's personnel subcommittee, told Military.com in a recent interview in her D.C. office.

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Ideas such as increasing the Basic Allowance for Housing or expanding eligibility for the two-year-old Basic Needs Allowance have garnered some support from lawmakers in both parties in recent years, but they have also struggled to get past the finish line.

Strickland's focus on housing affordability stems from the district she represents. It includes Joint Base Lewis-McChord, situated in theTacoma area, which is considered to be one of the most competitive housing markets in the country.

Military quality-of-life issues are also personal for Strickland, the daughter of a Black Army veteran and a South Korean mother. Her father served in the Army during World War II, a time when the military was racially segregated, and the Korean War, and she lived in on-base housing in Fort Richardson, Alaska, before her family moved to Tacoma.

While her father faced discrimination in the military, she also saw how military service allowed for upward mobility, something she fears is no longer the case.

"Roof over our head, plenty of food on the table, not really worried about having our basic needs met, and that's just not true today for so many military families," she said. "Joining the military, especially for a lot of minority families, was really a way up the economic ladder. ... So how do we make sure that we get back to that place where families who are serving don't feel like they have these huge financial struggles?"

While quality-of-life issues for service members have garnered bipartisan attention, the Armed Services Committee's personnel subcommittee has so far this year focused more on politics. The quality-of-life issues that are traditionally the subcommittee's purview are instead expected to be addressed in a new subpanel that lawmakers have said will be up and running in the coming months.

Strickland spoke to Military.com a day after the personnel subcommittee held a hearing on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the military in which Republicans argued such programs hurt the military. She lamented "performance artists" on the panel, but said military quality-of-life issues "should be" an area that can see bipartisan progress this year.

When she speaks with commanders at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Strickland said, "Without a doubt, the top issues that come up are housing, child care and food insecurity."

On food insecurity, she's a co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill introduced last month that would expand eligibility for the Basic Needs Allowance, which Congress created to help low-income troops experiencing hunger, by excluding the allowance from income calculations. On child care, Strickland suggested there's a nationwide issue of attracting child care workers that needs to be addressed.

On housing, Strickland wants to adjust the Basic Allowance for Housing back to covering 100% of housing costs. In 2015, Congress passed a law that allowed, but did not mandate, the Defense Department to reduce BAH so that it covers only 95% of a service member's housing costs. A 2021 Government Accountability Office report found the reduction meant troops were missing out on anywhere from $828 annually to $1,776, depending on their rank and whether they have dependents.

The non-binding report accompanying last year's House-passed version of the annual defense policy bill included language championed by Strickland that expressed concern about housing affordability; encouraged the Defense Department to restore BAH to 100% of housing costs; and asked the department to submit a report to Congress on restoring BAH. A bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Strickland also sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in November to "strongly encourage" him to "immediately restore" the full BAH.

But Strickland is doubtful the department will act on its own to restore BAH and said she thinks Congress will need to mandate it. She did not directly answer when asked whether she believes there's enough support in Congress to mandate BAH restoration, but said she thinks lawmakers recognize it as a recruitment and retention issue.

"Quality of life for those who serve and their families, that's going to have a factor in how people choose their careers," she said.

Lawmakers in both parties, including Strickland, have also expressed concern that BAH rates are not keeping pace with the housing market, particularly in high-cost areas such as Strickland's district. The version of last year's National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, that became law required the department to study the "accuracy" of BAH. That report is due in December, and Strickland said she will be looking closely to see how BAH calculations can be updated.

Another area of concern is housing availability. The non-binding report accompanying last year's House NDAA also called for the department to look into on-base housing availability and recommend options to increase the housing stock. For Strickland, the answer is changing the way the military lays out its housing.

"I don't need a study to know there's a housing shortage in JBLM because it affects the entire community up and down the I-5 corridor," she said, referring to a highway that runs along the West Coast.

"I know that, historically, the model has been ramblers, and they're kind of sprawled out," she added, referring to a style of home. "Taking some more, what I call, urban planning principles, where they can build townhouses, go more vertical, and think about places where we can build density on bases without encroaching upon any of the training and drills they have to do -- I think there's an opportunity there."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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