Editor's Note: This story has been changed to clarify that Key West was missing a dental hygienist, not a dentist, after being contacted by a Navy spokesman.
Almost a year after the Navy shuttered two barracks buildings on its base in Key West, Florida, leaving sailors scrambling to find a place to live, sailors and officials say that between long wait times and promises that failed to materialize, the housing crunch persists.
Adding to the troubles for the base is the fact that it is in desperate need of air traffic controllers -- a key job since the base also handles air traffic for the nearby civilian airport. The housing shortage has prevented the base from bringing in more help, leaders tell their sailors.
The result is that the base continues to struggle to attract and house sailors while others rotate out. One sailor said that "it's like we're bleeding out."
Last May, Military.com reported that Key West closed a pair of barracks buildings and sent about 80 sailors scrambling to find new places to live in the expensive and tiny community made up of a group of islands in the Caribbean.
Although the housing shortage led the Navy to grant even the youngest single sailors at the base a housing allowance -- usually single sailors have to rise to the rank of E-5 -- the extra cash was not enough, according to sailors who spoke to Military.com, and availability of housing in town is limited.
The Navy said that it would also let sailors rent one of its 36 vacation trailers -- two-bedroom mobile homes intended for the base's Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) team to rent to vacationers -- for nearly $4,000 a month. The option was doable when split between two sailors.
A pair of sailors stationed at the base reached out to Military.com in recent weeks and said that housing issues have not been resolved.
The base spokeswoman, Danette Baso Silvers, told Miltiary.com in an email last week that "there was a delay in completion of the MWR vacation trailers due to initial issues with the fire-detection systems." Silvers said that the issue was discovered in May 2022 -- the same month that sailors were ostensibly supposed to be able to move in -- and the units only passed inspection last month, March 2023.
Silvers said that while sailors who wanted to utilize this option were instead put up in other MWR housing, only seven sailors currently live in MWR accommodations.
Meanwhile, a large, new Gateway Inn hotel with 244 rooms that was supposed to be ready last year is also stuck in limbo, and currently doesn't have any sailors staying in it. Jeffrey Hamlin, a spokesman for the Navy Facilities Command Southeast, would not speak to what is holding up the building's completion despite the fact that the builder posted a video of what looks to be a completely finished hotel last August.
Hamlin added that the "Navy does not confirm or deny code compliance matters for active projects under construction and that "there is no public information" about an estimated completion date for the hotel.
Navy Gateway hotels are sometimes used by commands to house sailors in situations where barracks are not available. For example, sailors who were living on the USS George Washington -- the carrier experiencing a string of suicides -- were moved off to a Gateway hotel last April after Military.com broke the news of the deaths.
However, in this case, Silvers says the hotel was offered to sailors only "as a short-term solution [and] not a feasible long-term option." She noted that while the hotel was considered as a housing fix, the "MWR vacation rentals offered full kitchens and separate bedrooms to allow more comfort for the Sailors long term."
The final option -- privatized base housing -- is the more popular choice. Silvers said that 50 sailors have put their names on the wait list for privatized housing. But, between the popularity of the choice and the fact that houses are also going to officers and enlisted with families, the wait for base housing has only grown.
At the moment, that list is "up to 12 months," according to the spokeswoman -- up from the "around four to six months" that sailors told Military.com last year. Of the 511 homes on base, only 35 are occupied by single sailors, Silvers said.
She added that the Navy has found a contractor to replace the barracks they shut down last year, and work is set to begin in May with an expected completion date of Aug. 12, 2024.
No One to Work
Although Silvers stressed that "Key West leadership has ensured no Sailor is left without a place to live," the struggle for young sailors to house themselves has become a well-known problem. One recent social media post by a young sailor with orders to Key West featured advice like, "I don't recommend a trailer," "worst case scenario you'll live in a tent," and "start saving money now. It cost on average $5000 to move in anywhere."
The result is a struggle to get sailors to come to the installation including for critical jobs like air traffic controllers.
A sailor who is familiar with air operations at the base told Military.com that the situation has gotten to the point where air traffic controllers are working the legally allowed maximum -- six days a week.
"We're the only air traffic control facility in the Navy with an international airport attached to it," they added -- pointing to the fact that the controllers on the base help handle traffic to nearby Key West International Airport.
The sailor was granted anonymity due to concerns about retaliation by base leadership.
Cmdr. Rick Chernitzer, a spokesman for the Navy's personnel command, confirmed that the base only has 77% of the controllers it needs -- 50 people out of 65. However, he added that the base has two more controllers coming "in the near term."
However, the sailor on base was skeptical. They noted that the 50 people in the Navy data included several officers and senior enlisted who don't actually perform controller duties. Plus, they noted that it's far too easy for sailors to just refuse orders to the base, which has a reputation for housing issues.
"You have to extend your contract to meet the minimum requirement of time to be here," the sailor said before adding that "a lot of people, they'll get selected for orders and then they'll decline the extension."
"Because these are overseas orders, the Navy can't force them to go."
Meanwhile, leaders on base are worried about more bad publicity over the base's inability to house the sailors they desperately need.
The sailor recalled an officer telling a group of sailors last month that although the officer could ask the Navy "to send 12 airmen to me -- and they would" -- the lack of housing would mean that officer would "have the same [lack of housing] problem that we had last year ... and then some reporter is gonna write about it."
Plus, they also noted that the problems extend beyond just air traffic control.
A spokesman for Naval Hospital Jacksonville told Military.com that the base is short a dental hygienist -- an absence that meant personnel had to be brought in from Mayport, Fla., to help out.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.