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A boost to BAH coming?

Army plans to increase housing pay for soldiers strained by pandemic

A soldier returns from deployment and reunites with his family at Fort Hood, Texas, Sept. 22, 2021. Photo credit: Pfc. Kyler Hembree

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WASHINGTON - Soldiers and families paying unusually high living costs may qualify for a short-term increase in their housing allowance from October through December 2021, finance officials said Sept. 23.

To receive the payout, soldiers in designated areas will need to apply through their unit S-1s and show they have incurred higher housing costs, said Larry Lock, chief of compensation and entitlements for the Army's G-1 office.

Once approved, payouts should kick in within weeks, Lock added.

The temporary increase in Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, will apply to 56 of the over 300 Military Housing Areas, or MHAs, with five areas receiving a 20% increase, 11 receiving a 15% increase, and the rest slated for a 10% increase over current rates, said Vincent Gallman, a BAH compensation analyst for G-1.

According to news reports, the JBLM area has seen sizeable increases in both rental and home prices.

"Prices increased 1.6 percent from May to June in the Tacoma-Lakewood WA Metropolitan Division, according to the latest data from the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Index, one of the leading trackers of the housing market. Prices were up 22.6 percent in June 2021 over June 2020," according to a Patch story online.

"Prices in the bottom third of the market in the Tacoma-Lakewood WA Metropolitan Division - those priced under $445,000, often designated as starter homes - increased 23.2 percent year over year. The top third of the market (homes over $575,000) saw a 22.1 percent increase," according to the report.

KING 5 reported this spring that rental prices in Pierce County jumped 16 percent.

Because of COVID-19, the rental market has faced scarce housing shortages and ballooned rental costs, especially in metropolitan areas, Lock said.

The announcement follows concerns across the military from service members who have experienced financial strains, he said.

"They were complaining about the housing shortage due to the COVID-19 pandemic," Lock said. "As we continued to receive inquiries the question obviously became: What is the Department (of Defense) doing about it?"

Qualification criteria

Although qualifying factors vary, in short, soldiers who moved on or after March 13, 2020, in designated areas and have paid living expenses that surpass their current BAH rate may be entitled, Lock said.

Another scenario may be if a soldier has renewed their lease in the allocated MHAs, and is now paying abnormal out-of-pocket living expenses. Regardless of that soldier's rank, all qualified individuals will receive the same percent increase based on their MHA.

The rates expire on Dec. 31 and do not provide members rate protection, as BAH rates are typically adjusted at the first of every year. However, soldiers receiving BAH in 2021 will not see a decrease in their rates below those implemented on Jan. 1, 2021, unless there are unusual circumstances, such as a demotion.

Only soldiers taking on abnormal costs in designated areas are eligible for the increased BAH rates. The DOD-wide push could assist up to roughly 200,000 service members, including a significant amount of soldiers, Lock said.

With maximum participation, the cost estimates for the military overall are expected to be close to $160 million, Lock said.

The increase is not just for rental and mortgage costs, but also utility expenses, Lock said. For example, with so many people teleworking during the pandemic, utility bills may have gone up.

In some areas, delivery fees for propane gas have increased during the pandemic as well as a consumption tax being imposed by local power companies because of a shift in demand and usage.

With situations varying from family to family, Lock said there are multiple factors to determine who qualifies.

Couples with two military members may be eligible for temporary increases to their BAH. However, housing expenses used to certify one soldier's request for a temporary BAH rate increase cannot also be used to certify another soldier's request.

Eligibility for retroactive payments for the first month when qualified costs are established is possible, but not earlier than October 2021, as the ability to establish housing costs for a month occurs after the fact, he said.

For instance, if a soldier submits documentation of qualifying costs to an approving official in November for expenses from October they should be paid the higher rate for October because of how the payments are made, he said.

Soldiers will not need to resubmit documentation monthly, unless their status changes, like if they are promoted, demoted, or experience a change in dependent status, Lock said.

The Army team is still sorting through data to pinpoint individuals who are likely impacted based on their location, Lock said. Once that is determined, he expects that officials will soon notify soldiers via a SmartDoc email to begin the certification process.

"We are requesting for (soldiers) to submit a packet with the supporting documentation," said Maj. Criseida Almanza, a program analyst for the Army's G-1.

Documentation includes monthly expenses, lease and mortgage agreements and other related details.

"Once the S-1 receives that packet and (ensures) the soldiers make the criteria, (like) an increase in their utilities and on the actual agreement, then it will be sent to their battalion commander for a signature and the accommodation," she added.

Ranger staff contributed to this report

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