More civilians calling military bases home
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. (MCT) — The Dolce family loves their four-bedroom home in the Eagle Heights housing area at Dover Air Force Base.
Parents Tony and Ronell Dolce, teens Nikie and Crystal, 12-year-old Victoria and 5-year-old Alex are not an Air Force family, though. Nor are Tony and Ronell military retirees, or federal civilian employees, or reservists, or government contractors who also occasionally qualify for military housing residence, depending on active-duty demand.
They are, rather, representatives of a demographic shift — members of the general public who are leasing homes inside of military housing areas as the active-duty force shrinks because budget-cutting pressure.
Besides Dover, bases in Maryland, Louisiana, Kansas, Arizona, Washington and elsewhere also have admitted or are currently admitting non-federal civilians to base housing.
The decline of the active-duty force is evident over the past two years: 83,000 out of 1.39 million service members, as of March 31, according to Pentagon figures. And significantly greater cuts are underway. The Army alone could lose 130,000 troops by 2017 from its 2010 total of 570,000.
Active-duty troops and their families have typically populated most base family housing areas within the U.S., 98 percent of which are privately owned and managed under a Defense Department program started in 1996. They are the "preferred tenants" and receive priority for occupancy, according to Mark Wright, a Department of Defense spokesman.
In May, Eagle Heights was opened to non-federal civilians, who are last on the Defense Department's standard list of those who can become eligible, due to slackening demand from the active-duty force.
Eagle Heights is operated by Hunt Companies Inc., which manages 39,000 units in 25 housing areas along the East Coast and the South under a public-private contract with the military. Hunt is authorized to seek non-military tenants when occupancy falls below 95 percent for more than 90 days, according to Col. Rick Moore, the Dover base commander. The figure varies by base.
Living on a military base wouldn't be every civilian's cup of tea. But Tony Dolce, a stay-at-home dad working in online sales who moved his family from Newark, Del., to Eagle Heights in June, doesn't see anything but advantages.
"Safety is a big issue," he said. "I like the security here."
Dolce also likes the price: He pays $1,191 a month for a Dover home with a backyard and garage on a corner lot in what amounts to a gated community.
Like all other tenants, the Dolces are responsible for their own gas and electric costs. But all yard maintenance is included, as are on-site home repairs and emergency response. Ronell Dolce, who works in corrections, appreciates the multiple playgrounds and the availability of church services on base.
"Everything that you need is right here," Tony Dolce said.
As of July, only three of the 980 homes in Eagle Heights were occupied by civilians, according to Hunt spokesperson Dixie Johnson. Johnson did not respond to requests for an updated figure.
At the time, however, Hunt was seeing a wider trend. Six of its 25 communities, including Dover, were accepting civilians, and their numbers were growing.
"In the early years, because of the increase in troops and the war that we are fighting, there were way more active duty (troops) available for housing," Johnson said. "That has since changed a little bit as the drawdown has occurred and sequestration has happened."
In addition, Johnson said, "We're seeing a drawdown in short-term, 30-day notices due to getting out of the military in all of our properties." She said those troops are being given 10-day, 20-day or 30-day notices that they're being separated from the military, and are coming in to submit a notice to vacate housing.
Some military families complain that the occupancies are the result of rising rents that increase out-of-pocket costs beyond housing allowances and what service members feel they can afford.
A total of 19 management firms provide military housing within the U.S. One of the largest is Balfour Beatty Communities, with about 42,000 units spread among 56 bases across the country.
Allowing civilians to lease their base properties is nothing new for Balfour Beatty. The firm overbuilt as it got into the military housing market and has been been letting civilians lease its properties at bases for as many as six years at some locations, according to Terry Edelman, executive vice president of operations for the firm's communities branch.
As a result, Balfour Beatty's civilian totals are much higher than Hunt's. Just under 800 of its units are leased to civilians, Edelman said.
But the firm is seeing an acceleration of such arrangements as a result of the drawdown. Of the 800, about 12 percent — around 100 — were leased to civilians during the past year as a result of personnel reductions, Edelman said.
Balfour Beatty also has seen an increase in short-term military lease exits.
"We've gotten a lot of unexpected vacancies because of the short notices," Edelman said.
Not just anyone can rent at Eagle Heights. In addition to qualifying financially, both Hunt and the Air Force conduct background checks "to ensure the prospective tenants will be a good fit in the neighborhood," Moore said. Those 16 and older must also pass a sexual-offender registry check. Balfour Beatty conducts similar checks.
So far, it's working out.
"We have thus far seen no negative impacts from having nonmilitary tenants in the community, and we do not expect any," Moore said.
Tony Dolce doesn't, either.
"When you think military base, you automatically think ... everybody around you will be so on guard," he said. "But it's pretty relaxed, pretty friendly. They are very welcoming. ... Everybody seems like they respect each others' things."