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Air Force-wide housing study calls for fewer on-base homes

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- According to Air Mobility Command officials, in the future, the Air Force will rely more on the local communities around its bases to adequately house military families.

A service-wide Housing Requirements and Market Analysis study confirmed the Air Force could reduce the number of military family housing units. For Air Mobility Command, that means a 36 percent reduction in base housing Command-wide. The HRMA determined that, of the command's 17,161 base homes, only 10,963 are actually required.

According to AMC officials, the Air Force continues to place a high priority on providing quality family housing for its Airmen and their families.  AMC officials said over the past few years the Department of Defense and the Air Force have placed a lot of emphasis and funding on its family housing, a key retention issue. The DOD mandated that all the branches of service invest the necessary funding in family housing to bring the current inventory to today's standards by 2007.

The Air Force currently has 104,000 military family housing units, 40 percent of which are considered "inadequate," according to the results of the service-wide HRMA.

"Because of the significant cost involved and the relatively short amount of time to meet the 2007 deadline, the military services wanted to make sure they had the requirement fully identified," said Perry Potter, Chief of Housing for AMC's Installations & Mission Support Directorate. "Therefore, the Office of the Secretary of Defense worked with the [armed] services to develop a method to ensure all bases were evaluated in a comprehensive, systematic fashion. The tool to do this was called the Housing Requirements and Market Analysis, or HRMA."

Mr. Potter said the HRMA was accomplished at all Air Force installations and the housing requirement changed significantly at some bases. In fact, the requirement for housing across the entire Air Force decreased approximately 20 percent. "This means we will not have to spend money renovating inadequate homes we do not need," added Mr. Potter.

Mr. Potter said the DOD-mandated HRMA study began in September 2002.

"The Office of the Secretary of Defense guidance has always been that the [U.S. armed] services will rely on the local communities to house our military families and, only in situations where the local community does not have adequate, affordable housing, will the government provide housing," Mr. Potter explained.

He said the Air Force has adopted that philosophy and within the past year has analyzed housing markets in the local communities to determine if they can provide suitable housing for Airmen and their families.

According to Mr. Potter, HRMA isn't a completely new program. He said the Air Force for years has accomplished a similar study - called Housing Market Analysis - which also determined the suitability of housing in the local community. He said the Air Force, however, adopted a "customer-demand" philosophy.

"The Air Force got away from relying solely on the community first for suitable housing," said Mr. Potter. "If we had suitable housing on the base, even if [the homes] were not required, we classified them as 'customer demand' housing. We said as long as our excess houses were utilized, and as long as we maintained 98 percent occupancy, we would retain those excess homes."

Mr. Potter said the Defense Department's new HRMA program eliminated the "customer demand" philosophy.

"It is much more cost effective for the Air Force to give servicemembers [Basic Allowance for Housing] instead of maintaining, operating and programming funds for excess housing," said Mr. Potter.

He said identifying a base's minimum housing requirement is a detailed and time-consuming process.

The HRMA process begins with the Installation Manning Document, which is used to determine the grade (enlisted and officer) and bedroom requirements for a particular base. He said the study takes everyone into account, including tenant units, accompanied and unaccompanied personnel, and unassigned servicemembers who do not work on the installation, but are authorized housing there.

To establish the on-base minimum housing requirement, base officials identify four key demographic areas: the number of key and essential personnel; the number of historic housing units; 10 percent of all grades (enlisted and officer); and the number of servicemembers whose total income is less than 50 percent of the average median income in the community. Using the highest number in each of those categories by grade, the base determines its minimum on-base housing requirement, also called the "floor requirement."

"We then take the remaining people - the number of folks we need to house off base -- and stack that number up against the availability of homes in the local community," Mr. Potter explained. "If the community can meet the entire requirement, we only provide housing for our floor number; however, if the community cannot provide adequate housing for those people, the number of people who cannot be housed in the local community is added to our floor requirement to get the total number of homes the Air Force needs to provide on base."

When determining the suitability for off-base housing, Mr. Potter said the Air Force hires a civilian consultant to perform numerous studies of the base and local community. Studies include interviews with base and community leaders; demographic compilations and other analyses, such as community growth patterns, crime statistics, safety considerations, and more.

"The Housing Requirements and Market Analysis process is a comprehensive look at the housing market, both on base and in the local community," added Brig. Gen. Del Eulberg, director of AMC Installations & Mission Support. "The study analyzes many variables to make sure we get it right."

According to General Eulberg, the housing study at Fairchild AFB, Wash. - AMC's first HRMA -- was completed in December 2002.

"The Fairchild study was a real eye-opener," said the general. "It gave us our first glimpse at how much the communities had grown around our bases. The study determined that the local community could support a significant number of our military families. The Air Force could rely more on the local community to house our families and therefore we could reduce the number of housing units we needed to maintain on base"

Mr. Potter added that even before the command completed its HRMA studies, AMC leaders were discovering many vacant homes existed throughout the command.

"At Andrews, an entire housing area has been vacant for several years," said Mr. Potter. "The same can be said at Fairchild, Grand Forks [AFB, S.D.], and Travis [AFB, Calif.]." He added that many of these houses are old and haven't been adequately maintained or don't meet Air Force housing standards.

"If we don't need these houses, we should get rid of them," Mr. Potter said.

He said the cost to repair or replace those inadequate houses was estimated at about $7 billion. However, he said by eliminating the excess homes, and by using other programs, such as housing privatization, the on-base homes can be renovated, or new homes constructed, faster than in the past and at a lower cost to the taxpayer.

Mr. Potter said "privatization" allows an installation to lease on-base housing areas to a civilian developer who, in turn, obtains private money to fund the construction to replace or renovate these homes. The contractor then collects rent from the active-duty members living in the houses at a rate equal to the member's BAH minus a utility allowance. The result is bigger and better homes for our Airmen with zero out-of-pocket expenses.

While addressing a group of AMC chief master sergeants at Scott AFB recently, General Eulberg said that although the HRMA studies may call for fewer homes at some AMC bases, the DOD has made a real commitment to our military families. "Through increased military construction funding and programs such as privatization, we will be able to provide our Airmen and their families with first class homes faster than we have been able to do in the past," he said.

The general said civilian developers are not limited to the types of homes they can build, which means future Air Force housing areas may include amenities such as two-car garages, age appropriate playgrounds, jogging and bike trails, and larger homes.

General Eulberg also pointed out that recent targeted pay raises, BAH increases and lower mortgage rates have made Air Force personnel less reliant on military housing. He said more Airmen are choosing to live off base than ever before.

"Had the HRMA been accomplished in the mid-1980s -- when the size of the Air Force was double what it is today -- the number of Air Force houses that we currently have would probably be right on target," said Mr. Potter. He added that a significant amount of Air Force base housing construction was actually accomplished during the Cold War era when Air Force manning was robust.

"Considering today's [smaller] force and the cost of maintaining homes, it just makes sense that we re-evaluate our housing requirements and eliminate our excess and inadequate homes," he said. "The HRMA studies helped us identify the right requirement. We can now stay focused on renovating and building our military families the first class homes they deserve."