Basic Housing Allowance (BAH) may be significantly reduced for all service members

Photo by Lance Cpl. Erin Tansey

Lawmakers in the Senate are looking change the method in which military housing stipends are awarded- and it could end up costing servicemembers a lot more in out of pocket expenses.

According to 13WMAZ, the current Senate draft of the annual defense authorization measure involves changes to military housing allowance, though the possible overhauls are not getting the attention that other included issues -such as health care and acquisition reforms for the military- are generating among the military and public.

In contrast to the current (CONUS) housing allowance system that assigns a flat-rate stipend based on rank, family size and servicemember’s zip code, the new proposal would bear a closer resemblance to the housing allowances of servicemembers serving overseas- covering only the documented cost of housing and utilities.

Under the current system, a single Specialist at Fort Campbell, Kentucky permitted to collect BAH (provided the barracks were unavailable) would be able to accrue $1014 a month to spend on rent and utilities. With the average rent in nearby Clarksville, Tennessee -where the majority of Fort Campbell soldiers reside- trending at about $779 a month, that gives the Specialist approximately $235 for utilities, allowing him to save considerably on other expenses, such as groceries or fuel. If two or more soldiers became roommates, the amount of collective savings would climb dramatically. However, housing prices in the area have fluctuated over the years, spiking to well over the current BAH allowance in late 2013.

Under the new proposal, such flexibilities will end- requiring servicemembers to document the exact cost of rent and utilities and providing paperwork to back up their numbers. In addition, the cost of living could fluctuate, requiring further submission of paperwork and bureaucratic headaches.

The new BAH proposal is the result of many senators believing that the housing stipend is easily and frequently abused by service members, arguing in reports connected to the bill that the amount paid  “far exceeds the actual cost of housing borne by some service members.”

“BAH, and the iterations of the benefit that came before, was intended to provide a housing benefit for service members in recognition of the transient nature of military service, and in further recognition of the reality that civilian spouses are often unemployed and sacrifice careers of their own,” lawmakers wrote in the report. “That the housing allowance was and is intended as primarily a housing benefit is demonstrated by its tax-free nature, the differentiation based on dependency status, and the fact that service members occupying government quarters … are ineligible to receive BAH.”

Pentagon officials oppose the idea of arbitrarily assigning stipend to exact amounts in costs to housing, criticizing the Senate proposal by saying housing allowance is “simply another form of compensation.” In addition, outside advocates argue that the extra money often (but not always) incurred by excess BAH make up for shortfalls in military compensation and benefits.

In a March report on housing allowances presented to Congress, the Department of Defense argued that “while potential savings could be achieved … providing a degraded compensation package to one member, solely because of that member’s status of being married to another member, and co-location, stands in direct conflict with the principle that a member is paid regular military compensation in exchange for his or her service.”

Lawmakers have had their sights on cutting housing allowance and military pay in recent years as a means to save money in the defense budget, with the proposed Senate pay already capping military pay raises below that of the private sector for the fourth year in a row.

Meanwhile, the behind-schedule F-35 program will be producing three models of the aircraft at the average price of $178 million per aircraft, with the pilot’s helmet for each aircraft pricing out at approximately $400,000.

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