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The Fight on the Home Front


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THEY SIT IN THE NAVY COUNSELOR'S OFFICE, distracted by their two toddlers playing on the floor, and weigh their options. Petty Officer First Class Michael Barron and his wife, Karen, rented a four-bedroom house in San Ysidro for $800 a month, where they and their four kids waited for Navy housing in Tierrasanta’s Murphy Canyon Heights. Murphy Canyon was a logical section to sign up for, since it offered 2,000 housing units and involved only a 10-month wait. When the time came to look at the two houses offered, Michael and Karen were keenly disappointed.

This is an area where many houses, built in the 1970s, have been renovated or completely rebuilt. But a certain section has yet to be renovated, and that’s where both places were. Karen was alarmed by the shabbiness. But the rule is you get two choices, and if neither one suits, you go back on the waiting list.

“It isn’t fair,” says Karen. “You have to make up your mind in 24 hours.” They choose to go back to San Ysidro and get back on the 10-month waiting list. “The former occupants were just moving out,” explains Captain Judy Gaze, assistant chief of staff for Navy Support Services. “I told them the Navy cleans and paints the interiors between occupants. They should have been able to visualize what it would look like afterward.”

IT'S GREAT TO HAVE THE MILITARY HERE. As our second-largest industry, the military contributes enormously to our economy. But a military force, whether Navy or Marines, means personnel—and the families of personnel. While they’re waiting for Navy quarters, where do you put these families in a city with a housing crunch?

Most know the rental vacancy rate in San Diego is a startlingly low 1 percent. People who move here spend a disproportionate amount on rent. Where can you find a house for a couple with children who can spend only $751 a month (the basic housing allowance), or a little more depending on their rank?

This is the challenge that faces Gaze. Her office, in a large, modern building on the U.S. Navy Base off 28th Street, is where everybody with a change of orders to San Diego checks in. They can stay, with their families, at the Navy Lodge just across the way, but the $60-a-night tab is picked up by the Navy for only seven days. So they have one week to find a rental.

Why don’t they go into Navy-owned housing? Because while more than 9,000 families will eventually be placed in Navy-owned (or -leased) housing in San Diego, there are 6,000 more on the waiting list. And the wait is an average of 18 months. So for 18 months (or sometimes 24 or even 48, depending on the area they’ve chosen), these people must rent in the city. If they can find a unit with a cost that matches their BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing), they’re lucky. Most find that an apartment in San Diego adds $100 to $150 a month to their out-of-pocket expense.

Imagine the trauma of scouring the city of San Diego to find a home in one week. Yes, they are given guidance by counselors. Each family has time with an advisor who’s familiar with the different sections of the city. The counselor helps them choose what they can afford. Maybe the spouse will work, or they have money in some other way and can afford to exceed the Navy allowance. Armed with maps and rows of free phones, they comb the city for a resting spot. Most will spend half their duty time for the next few years living in town rentals, the last half, if lucky, in free Navy quarters.

Gaze emphasizes that quality of life is important at this point. The family will sometimes be alone for six months at a time while the husband is at sea. Peace of mind is essential to the Navy employee, and comfortable surroundings in a good school district are important to the wife and children.

Of the 33,224 Navy families in San Diego, 27 percent are in quarters, 25 percent (mostly high-ranking officers) own their own homes, and 48 percent rent a civilian house. The issue is lack of affordable housing for junior enlisted families. Average rental rates in San Diego are $1,084 for one- and two-bedroom units, $1,595 for three-bedroom units and $2,021 for four- and five-bedroom units.

Housing allowances are based on pay grade and vary from city to city. The lowest-ranking enlisted man in San Diego now gets a $751 allotment. At Twenty-Nine Palms, however, it’s only $395. In Huntsville, Alabama, it’s $388. In Phoenix, it’s $601. In San Francisco, it’s $1,108. (All are calibrated to cost of living in the area by Runzheimer Corporation, a national firm.)

Also, as of January 1, BAH upgrades began to narrow the gap between what is covered by the government and the actual cost of the rental. At present, there tends to be an 18 percent gap. When Secretary of Defense William Cohen visited here in January, he promised to close that gap in five years. A good thing down the line—but it doesn’t help much at the moment.

There are also plans to build 500 homes at the former Naval Training Center in Point Loma (which could begin within a year) and hopes for 1,500 new units at Miramar. The latter is much less certain. It could be years before such a plan is finalized. Neighborhood meetings, environmental studies and general confusion promise to hold plans up for some time.

Retired Admiral Hugh Webster, head of the civilian Navy League, is incensed by neighborhood opposition. Naturally, people in the area are concerned, he says. How many new children does that put in the schools? What about traffic? But the military is here to protect the country. “People don’t want to pay the price of freedom,” he says.
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