Military housing: civilian style: are you ready for new digs?

Military housing: civilian style: are you ready for new digs?

Beth Reece

MOST Soldiers have learned not to be picky about on-post housing, but some have recently discovered that the choices open to them are increasing. Favor one floor plan over another? Want to choose your neighbors or reside close to jogging trails? Go right ahead.

“We want Soldiers and their families to be happy about their living arrangements. Their wants matter to us,” said Don Spigelmyer, director of the Residential Communities Initiative program.

The Military Housing Privatization Initiative Act lets the Army build partnerships with private-sector developers that have the money and mastery to manage and improve family housing. The result: better living conditions for Soldiers and their families.

“This is the best thing that’s happened to family housing in the history of the military,” Spigelmyer said. “No longer do we have to depend on unpredictable funding to repair and replace housing units.”

The RCI program currently includes 84 percent of Army housing, or almost 71,000 housing units, at 34 installations–all slated for privatization by 2007. Soldiers and families are already settling into new homes built on such posts as Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Carson, Colo.; Fort Lewis, Wash., and Fort Meade, Md.

Features of new housing include expanded living and storage areas, rooms that accommodate modern furniture, and neighborhoods with on-site maintenance teams and recreational facilities.

“I’m really impressed with our new house and the community it’s in,” said SGT Derwin Kitt, who moved into new housing at Fort Meade with his wife and three children last summer. “It’s definitely a step above anything I’ve lived in before.”

The Army takes a back seat in the RCI partnership, although it stays involved in major decisions. Developers maintain daily operations for their 50-year property leases.

Spigelmyer said the arrangement is working well so far. Soldiers and families get housing at private-sector standards, the Army gets world-class work, and developers get involved with the nation’s military.

Changing for the Better

At the time Congress passed the housing-privatization legislation, 70 percent of the Army’s inventory was inadequate, Spigelmyer said.

“We had a $7 billion backlog in maintenance and repair, and that’s a conservative estimate. There was no way we were ever going to get that amount of money through appropriated funding,” he said.

Developers’ main source of revenue for building and construction is Soldiers’ rent, which comes from the Basic Allowance for Housing. When construction is complete, developers place a portion of the Soldiers’ BAH in interest-bearing accounts for future repairs and maintenance.

“Houses we renovate now will probably need to be replaced in 10 or 15 years, and the houses being built now will need renovations by then. The goal is to place housing on a sustainable basis,” Spigelmyer said.

As Soldiers become accustomed to paying rent, developers will be pushed to satisfy customers. After all, Soldiers who aren’t happy with on-post housing are free to take their BAH to off-post neighborhoods.

Most new construction so far has been on town homes for junior-enlisted Soldiers. And renovations on previously existing homes have been equally as popular as the new units, said Ivan Bolden, RCI’s program manager for policy.

“Renovated quarters at Fort Hood, for example, are more popular than the new versions. They’re gorgeous, and have a lot of character,” he said.

While Soldiers are eager for changes, they won’t happen overnight, Spigelmyer said. “There are going to be ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ while we’re going through the process. It usually takes five to 10 years to complete the initial-development period.”

Community Atmosphere

More than just home improvement, RCI is an introduction of residential communities and hometown atmospheres to military installations.

“New urbanism is big in the private sector right now. Our developers are keeping that in mind and bringing what’s popular onto installations to replace the old military feel,” said Rhonda Hayes, deputy director of RCI.

Each housing development will have a community center as a focal point for property management and maintenance teams, and give families a place to gather.

“This is definitely one of the biggest pluses,” Kitt said of the center in his new neighborhood. “Everyone in the main office is there to help, and the clubhouse–which is just a short walk away–gives families a new place to go and get away from stress.”

The ideas of such installation agencies as the Morale, Welfare and Recreation Division, and Army and Air Force Exchange Service are being integrated into the community-development process. And families also get a say in what they want. The result: tot lots, jogging trails, dog parks, and even swimming pools are planned into the neighborhood instead of being constructed as an afterthought or located elsewhere on post.

“These things aren’t that novel in the civilian sector, but they’re new to military installations,” said Spigelmyer.

RCI supports the Army’s goal of making installations serve as flagships, one of the Army’s 16 focus areas. The program gives commanders the freedom to focus on their units’ missions, rather than post facilities.

“This is just as important as developing new equipment,” Spigelmyer said. “Taking care of families and making sure they have good housing helps support that goal.”

Residents to Pay Utility Costs

IN an effort to encourage energy conservation by the residents of privatized housing, the Army will soon implement a utility plan that calls for RCI installations that have built new homes, or have totally renovated and metered homes, to inform Soldiers of their utility consumption.

The plan will begin by early next year with a one-year mock-billing period. The mock billing serves two purposes: It provides the project with an accurate baseline utility usage figure for the homes, and it informs the Soldiers whether they are above or below the “typical” utility consumption for that type of home.

Residents of privatized housing will begin paying utility costs for electricity, gas and heating oil by the end of 2005.

“Residents will have the chance to see how much energy they’re using and make improvements if necessary before we actually start charging them,” said Don Spigelmyer, director of the Residential Communities Initiative. “Soldiers need to start thinking about energy conservation just as if they lived off post.”

After the mock billing ends, Soldiers will start receiving bills that compare their actual utility usage with the baseline. Those who have conserved utilities will get a rebate, while those Soldiers who have consumed more than the average will be expected to pay the difference.–RCI Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Soldiers Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group