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Military families face housing limbo during Covid-19 crisis

As states reopen across the nation, the Defense Department will immediately begin to lift “stop-movement” orders at some military bases in the U.S. and abroad. Service members will now be allowed to follow orders to move to a new location — a permanent change of station — in stages, depending on local conditions, according to a May 22 memo from the Secretary of Defense. 

Yet the department’s travel restrictions, which were first set in March and extended until June 30, have already caused significant financial hardship for tens of thousands in the military. Some service members and their families are getting double-billed for what’s often their biggest expense: housing. 

“We’re seeing a lot of people have lost earnest money because they put money down on a house … or they’re going to be paying two rents or two mortgages within 60 days,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families, a non-profit organization that conducts research and provides programs and resources for more than 1.5 million military family members. “We have a lot of people who have all of their household goods in storage.

“They have to buy clothes or rent furniture to make up for that,” she added.

Andrea and Jerry Bortner

Kelsey McCarty

Recent polling by Blue Star Families and the Association of Defense Communities shows 17% of respondents with permanent change of station orders said their family is currently paying (or will be in the next 60 days) two leases or mortgages.

Indeed, two sets of housing costs — at both the current and prospective duty stations — might be incurred, said Defense Department spokesperson Lisa Lawrence, “if a member entered into a rental or purchase agreement at the prospective duty station prior to departing the old duty station and then was prevented from moving to the prospective duty station because of the travel restrictions and stop movement orders.”

While the military member “would continue to receive a housing allowance at the current duty station, [they] would not be eligible for a second housing allowance at the prospective duty station,” she said.

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That is a scenario that has put the Bortner family, and some other military families, in housing limbo.

Andrea Bortner and her two young children live in military family housing at Fort Riley, Kansas. Her husband Jerry, a U.S. Army captain, is currently serving in Korea. He was sent there in February before being able to follow his PCS orders to move to Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia. The Bortners bought a house near Jerry’s new base last month, but they haven’t been able to move.

“We put thousands of dollars into the house already,” Andrea Bortner said. “We bought this house based on what he would be getting paid in northern Virginia, thinking that we would be there in May and getting that pay in May.”

Bortner said her husband’s salary will change based on the cost of living increase for the new location. Until he’s stationed at Fort Belvoir, they’ll have to dip into their savings to pay for the family’s housing expenses in two locations, she said.

Jerry Bortner

Andrea Bortner

“The impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic stop move order, which runs through June 30, has affected some of the approximately 24,000 soldiers who were originally scheduled to move,” said an Army spokesperson. 

Thousands of service members in other branches of the military have also been impacted.

“Every military family should think in terms of setting aside money for a transitional period,” said certified financial planner John Power of Power Plans in Walpole, Massachusetts. “If you don’t have money set aside, you’re going to get behind and get in debt.

“If a military member is drawing full pay and their spouse is still working, then take advantage of this unpleasant opportunity and sock away some money,” said Power, a retired Army colonel who was in service for about 30 years. 

He suggests military families struggling with financial hardship during this Covid-19 crisis check out the Defense Department’s Military OneSource for details on how to access free financial counseling. In addition, various service relief organizations are also offering emergency financial help.

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