A “crazy” housing market hits military families hard when they have to move

The past year has been a whirlwind one for Lisa Koroma and her family of five.

They pulled together to move to Colorado Springs from South Korea after Koroma’s Army husband received orders last fall that his duty station would be moved from Camp Humphreys to Fort Carson.

“It was the worst move I’ve ever experienced,” Koroma said. “I feel like we were just ill-prepared for what we encountered.”

Koroma’s frustration and exhaustion from moving is evident when she describes her family’s challenges, which really started to increase once they were in the US. Base housing at Fort Carson was full, meaning they had to stay in a hotel while they searched for a place to stay.

In a hot housing market, it took her about a month to find something that could work for her family.

“We were in a rush at this point because we’re piling up hotel bills and breakfast, lunch and dinner because you’re in a hotel for a family of five,” she said. “We say, ‘Whatever it is, we’ll take it!'”

But they made compromises, Koroma added, like the cost of the home and school she preferred for her children. The rent they live in now costs more than the monthly housing benefit her husband receives from the army, she said.

Still, it was better than more hotel bills. At that time, the Ministry of Defense covered only 10 days of temporary accommodation expenses.

“And they don’t cover the whole part because we had two rooms,” Koroma said. “It was almost like they just assumed the soldier would move, so they covered for the soldier but not the family.”

There were also other expenses, such as rental cars and furniture, while waiting for their vehicles and belongings to arrive from South Korea, she said. All in all, Koroma estimates that her family spent around $10,000 of their own money on the move.

“If I had known that, we would have prepared better,” she said. “We use credit cards that we haven’t caught up on on these bills yet. So we hack on it.”

“Gloomy” and “nightmarish” experiences

Koroma’s experience of moving as a military family over the past year is hardly unique.

A relocation and housing pulse check in September of Blue Star Families found that military families spend more time and money finding housing when they change duty locations.

“Moving for a posting is already a challenge, and we embrace that role very well as military families,” said Kimberly Gold, one of the study’s authors. “But now hearing about military families using ‘gloomy’ and ‘nightmare’ as a recurring theme. It bothers me.”

Almost half of the families surveyed needed more than 20 days in temporary accommodation. In some extreme cases, this time exceeded 90 days.

The Department of Defense covers only 14 days of the temporary housing costs it extended from 10 days earlier this year.

Once families manage to find housing, they reported spending an average of $336 more than their military housing allowance per month on their rent or mortgage without utilities.

These additional costs cascade and take money away from other parts of military families’ budgets, particularly food, said Ceasarae Galvan, who provides Justice, Diversity, Justice and Inclusion Supporters of armed forces housing.

“When you spend more money on one thing, you have less money on something else,” she said. “Which isn’t just affecting the families, it’s also affecting the military, because if you’re worried about whether your kids will get any food this morning, you’re not focusing on your job.”

Other things that fall by the wayside for military families include household items and trips to visit friends and relatives, Gold said.

“You sacrifice all these little things that make life a little bit sweeter,” she said. “Why have we gotten to the point where we seem to be sacrificing everything?”

Fluctuations in the housing market caused by the pandemic and high inflation exacerbated the situation for military families, who already have little control over when and where they move, said Jessica Strong, another author of the Blue Star Families study.

“They may wait a little longer in makeshift housing if they want to move to military housing, which they know will be less expensive over time,” she said. “Or they may feel pressured to move to permanent housing sooner rather than waiting months.”

“These PCS really broke us”

For military families looking to save money by using military housing, wait times can be months or even years, Strong explained. And it’s not a silver bullet.

Deanna Johnson, her Navy husband, and their two daughters moved to Whidbey Island, Washington, in October and chose to live in privately managed housing on the Post Office.

A comparable home to the one they live in now costs $2,800 a month, far more than the $2,100 housing benefit Johnson’s husband gets from the Navy, she said. Before his promotion to Navy First Class, her allowance was $1,500 a month.

“The housing market here is crazy,” Jonson said. “We looked at our budget and thought there was no way we could pay more than our housing benefit.”

But the military housing experience was far from smooth. Everything from coordinating the paperwork to removing the smell of tobacco from their garage was an ordeal, Johnson said.

“Every time we tried to talk to them, it was like we were harassing them,” she said.

Now she and her husband are considering whether their entire family will relocate the next time a permanent station change or PCS order arrives, Johnson said.

“This PCS really ruined us,” she said. “We have two young children and we didn’t want to be separated. It was like we were trying to force military shelters to work for us.”

“When are you getting off?”

Johnson and her husband are also considering whether leaving the military altogether is their best option.

This is a common notion in many military families, Gold said.

“We have these stories where family members are pushing and encouraging their military members to get out of the military because they say they can’t afford it mentally or financially,” she said.

The Department of Defense has responded to some of the housing challenges facing military families. It issued a temporary increase in the military’s basic housing allowance in September this year some markets where rents have exploded. However, these only apply to 28 locations across the country.

Colorado Springs, where Lisa Koroma’s family lives, is not one of them.

She says the stress of this move prompted her to ask her husband if he could retire from the army soon.

“I pat him on the back every day, ‘When. When are you coming out?’” she said. “He’s close to the mark where he could get off and nobody would say anything.”

That’s not necessarily what she or her husband want. Koroma emphasized her deep appreciation for what the military has provided for her family.

“I love the military; My husband loves the military,” she said. “We love what made it possible for us: his career, his education. Part of the education was covered for me by the GI bill, which I wholeheartedly took advantage of.”

However, Koroma explained that her family needs more support from the army for this lifestyle to make sense, especially after the challenges they faced moving this time around.

“I never want to do that again,” she said.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration reporting on American military life and veterans. Funding is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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