'They're Not Able to Cover Their Rent': Housing Top Concern as Congressional Panel on Military Life Starts Work

U.S. Rep. Don Bacon speaks at Offutt Air Force Base.
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, former commander of Offutt's 55th Wing, speaks during an event celebrating the 20th year of the 170th Group at Offutt Air Force Base, Sept. 10, 2022. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Lt. Col. Kevin Hynes)

Enlisted personnel and junior officers are very concerned about being able to afford housing, the chairman of a new House panel focused on quality of life in the military told Military.com in an interview Monday after a pair of listening sessions at Offutt Air Force Base.

While the quality-of-life panel still has a couple months before it begins in earnest, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who is leading the panel, said he wanted to get a "head start" and so ventured the five miles from his home to hear directly from service members at the base where he used to be a commander.

"On the enlisted and the officer [side], the housing allowances have been the number one unanimous concern of both," said Bacon, who spoke to Military.com by phone after two of three planned closed-door sessions Monday. "What I'm hearing from the enlisted and officers -- CGOs, company grade officers, in particular -- is that they're not able to cover their rent, which means they're digging into their other pay, their salary for finishing their rent and also doing utilities."

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The House Armed Services Committee announced earlier this year it was creating a new subpanel focused on quality-of-life issues led by Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general who commanded Offutt's 55th Wing. Bacon has previously said boosting pay for junior enlisted service members and improving military housing conditions would be among his panel's priorities.

While those issues have traditionally been handled by the Armed Services Committee's long-standing personnel subcommittee, the personnel panel has focused more on political hot button issues so far this congressional session.

Lawmakers in both parties have been expressing concern in recent years that the Basic Allowance for Housing is not keeping pace with the housing market.

For Offutt, which sits about 10 miles south of Omaha, affordable housing in the surrounding area is scarce, Bacon said.

He said he sees two potential fixes to make housing more affordable for service members. One would be to mandate that BAH cover 100% of housing costs. Right now, it covers 95% of costs after Congress passed a law in 2015 that allowed, but did not require, the Defense Department to reduce the percentage of housing costs the allowance pays for. Earlier this month, Bacon co-sponsored a bill that would bring BAH back up to 100%.

The quality-of-life panel will also look at updating the calculations used to set BAH rates, he added.

"I got to nail this down and have a little more science to my observation that the calculations are not current, and they're a little bit too arbitrary," he said. "They don't accurately reflect the marketplace. I'm hearing that from the military themselves. But I'm also hearing this from people that work this for a living, it's what they do, and they think it's outdated."

During Monday afternoon's listening sessions, Bacon also said he spoke to a few service members who at one point qualified for food stamps. That underlined to him the need to increase junior enlisted pay and adjust other stipends such as the Basic Allowance for Subsistence, he said.

"You shouldn't have to come in the military and, to put food on the table, be on the SNAP program," he said, using the acronym for the formal name of the food stamp program. "That's unacceptable."

The quality-of-life panel will hold its first formal hearing in June, Bacon said. He anticipates the first hearing will be about service members on food stamps, which he called "job number one," followed shortly by a hearing on the housing allowance issues.

The panel still needs to hire staff and appoint other members besides Bacon. The goal is to have recommendations to include in the annual defense policy bill Congress will consider in 2024.

"This is about love of the military and the love of our country, not Republican or Democrat," he said. "We're going to work hard because I got almost exactly 10 months to provide recommendations."

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

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