Published: September 3, 2021
MilFams Struggle More Than Ever to Find a Place to Call Home
Moving is a part of military life and a reality that all military families accept. In fact, 600,000 military-connected families move every single year. That’s a full third of our All-Volunteer Force packing up and reporting to new duty stations—some across the country, others across the globe. The majority of the modern military has their family along for the ride, however. Therefore, some of what’s become “standard practice” generates stress on both the service member and their family. And when there’s stress at home, mission readiness suffers.
When thinking about military life challenges that generate stress, short orders come to mind. From the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, we know that almost half (48%) of active-duty family respondents report receiving their “hard” orders two months or less in advance of their most recent PCS (permanent change of station). What you may not realize is that many of the requirements to move with the military can’t be completed until you have “hard” orders in hand — things like scheduling transportation, getting on housing waitlists, conducting move-out inspections, and clearing your prior installation. That’s a lot to accomplish in two months or less. And that list doesn’t include packing, saying goodbye to friends, leaving one school and enrolling in the next, collecting and transferring medical records, and, oh yeah, driving across the country with kids in tow. It’s a lot, and it’s stressful.
Meet Celeste. She’s been a Navy spouse for nearly 10 years. In that time, her family has moved four times with their eight-year-old son. They’ve been through a few challenges with moves in the past, but this last move really pushed them to the edge. “We had 16 days from when our orders were cut to when my husband had to report in for work.” Celeste shared. “Sixteen days to pack up and move from Utah to South Carolina. There was no time to arrange a military move, as they require a minimum 30 days notice. So we secured our own solution and decided to pack ourselves. We had four days from when the orders were cut to have our entire house boxed up because of when the containers would be dropped off, then we had 72 hours to load the containers, so they could be picked up and we could start our 40+-hour drive across the country. I cannot stress how quickly our lives were turned upside down. We had to say goodbye to our homeschool group, which broke my son’s heart. I had to quit my job and say goodbye to the friends I made. We planned to do some last-minute exploring of national parks like Yellowstone and Arches, maybe the Grand Canyon. Instead, we had eight days to pack, say final goodbyes to our friends and support systems, make housing arrangements from across the country, break our lease on our rental home, and drive 40+ hours. This came at a huge financial cost to us. We couldn’t use the Government Travel Card because we had no time to get it set up. Everything went on our personal credit cards. After we were reimbursed based on the military’s calculations, we ended up out $2,500. Plus $2,000 to break our lease because companies are allowed to charge up to 30 days rent for the early termination under military orders.”
Sixteen days to move would present challenges with finding housing under the best circumstances. But 2021 certainly doesn’t present the best circumstances. The housing market has exploded. The costs of buying or renting a home have risen exponentially, pricing many military families out of the markets they’re ordered to move to. For Celeste, a quick house hunt revealed homes were selling just as fast as they were put on the market, which wasn’t a viable situation for her family.
Connie, a Coast Guard spouse and mom of two, found herself in a similar position. After five moves with the military, she was looking forward to purchasing their first home at their new duty station. “We started doing our research and looking for houses online, but the market was so rough and moving so quickly,” Connie said. “Homes were selling well over asking, and it became clear that this was a housing market we wouldn’t be able to navigate or afford. At that time, all off-base military homes were taken, so we decided to get onto waitlists for townhomes to rent. Luckily, two weeks before we arrived in Jersey, we got the call for a townhome that opened up. It was over our budget, but at that point in time, we were desperate.”
Military families were already facing financial challenges in the era of COVID-19. In response to the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 77% of respondents report paying more than $200 in out-of-pocket housing costs per month. Those costs are steadily rising because the Basic Housing Allowance is not adjusted in real-time to accommodate the rapidly changing housing market. You might ask: why are so many military families paying out of pocket when they have military housing available to them? First off, many families choose to live off installation in the civilian community to provide more opportunities for their children. They may be looking for specific school systems that address their needs or proximity to medical services. Outside of those considerations, the reality is, the military housing system isn’t perfect. For the past decade, families have been fighting against poor housing conditions, health concerns, and needed repairs. Attempts to address those problems, while necessary and positive, make another situation worse: housing waitlists.
When Celeste’s family realized finding and affording a house off installation wasn’t in the cards, they quickly got on the housing waitlist. While rank and the number of dependents determine which houses military families qualify for, Celeste knew they didn’t have much flexibility given their 16-day timeline. They indicated they would take any open home and, fortunately, were placed in a home that comfortably fits their family. Many aren’t so lucky.
Blair, an Army spouse, understands the hardships of moving with the military. When their son was born 14 weeks premature in November 2011, they had to move mere weeks after being discharged from the NICU in February 2012. It’s hard to imagine anything more difficult, but if you ask Blair, that move was a breeze, compared to their move this year.
“We started preparing for our move in February 2021,” Blair shared. “We drove from Fort Campbell, KY, to Fort Benning, GA, to look at homes for sale in the area. This was the beginning of the housing boom. It was/is a seller’s market, and we could not afford to pay thousands of dollars over asking to compete with the already high prices of the homes, and the multiple offers sellers were getting. Once we decided we couldn’t afford to buy, we submitted our application for on-post housing. That was March 1st, 2021. We couldn’t officially activate on the waiting list for housing until we had our clearing paperwork from Fort Campbell. We submitted everything as soon as we could, on May 11th, 2021. At that point, we were on the waitlist for the neighborhoods we were told we qualified for at Fort Benning. We were #33 on the list, with a 6-8-week waiting period to get into a house. My husband’s report date was in June, so we weren’t sure if we’d have a home by the time he had to start. After a couple of weeks of getting bumped down on the list even more due to drill priority, and the wait times changing from 6-8 weeks to 12+ weeks, we switched to the waitlist for one of the older neighborhoods in the hopes that we’d be able to actually get into a home.”
While Blair and her family waited for housing, they were offered a small hotel room on post with two full size beds. The room would cost them their entire Basic Housing Allowance of nearly $1,600, and it would be where the family of three, plus three pets, would spend the next six to eight weeks. The unpredictable environment of moving was hard enough on their son who has autism and struggles with change, so Blair decided to wait things out in Florida with family. Her husband reported for duty without any housing and without his family. After seven weeks, they were offered a home and quickly moved in. Unfortunately for Blair, the obstacles didn’t stop there. It seemed that, in the rush to get families off the waitlist and into housing, the clean out in between wasn’t happening.
“The leasing agent didn’t do a walkthrough with us,” Blair said. “We just picked up the keys and started moving in. Upon entry of the home, it was very apparent the house had not been cleaned before we arrived. On top of needing to do a deep clean, during our first month in the home, we had to have maintenance come out and repair our gas range, dishwasher, bathroom faucets in both bathrooms, weather stripping, thermostat, HVAC, and a burned outlet. Changes like moves are hard for our son. He has asked me every day, ‘When are we going home?’ and it’s heartbreaking. My priority should be helping my son adjust, getting him set up for school, ensuring his Individualized Education Plan is in place, and making sure we have the care and support we need. Instead, we were waiting, endlessly, for housing, and now we’re dealing with cleaning and repairs. It’s hard to start feeling at home, and it’s really wearing on me. I struggle with anxiety and depression. This move amplified my anxiety to a height I have never endured. Families should not be treated this way and have to struggle this much.”
Military families don’t have a choice about where or when they move. It can be hard, but it’s a sacrifice they willingly make. We must ensure all families have time to prepare for these big changes and that, at the other end of a transition, they have access to safe and affordable housing. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case for Celeste, Connie, Blair, and many more military families moving this year. So this September, we’re bringing awareness to communities across the country, urging neighbors to be mindful of the new military family next door through Blue Star Welcome Week. They may have gone through a lot to get there, and they could use a warm welcome and helping hand.
Not sure where to start? We have the tools, activities, and events available to help you create connections and show your support. We hope you’ll join us to honor the military families in your neighborhood. Participate in a local event, introduce yourself to your new neighbor, and connect with us. It doesn’t take much to make a big difference for those who sacrifice so much in service to our great country. Learn more about ways you can get involved at www.bluestarwelcomeweek.org.