While Navy officials recently announced plans for remodeling off base housing, they currently have no plans for building new units despite the fact that the scarcity of affordable housing is a top concern among Whidbey officials and that a Navy study predicts an upcoming shortfall of dwellings.
There is a misconception in the community that the base can choose to build more housing, according to Deputy Public Affairs Officer Thomas Mills.
In fact, policies from the Pentagon prevent any kind of Navy housing building boom. In addition, Navy officials don’t feel that a housing crisis is impacting the base’s population.
NAS Whidbey Island Housing Director Jeff Green explained the base has to comply with a policy set by the Department of Defense that requires military installations to build housing for about 30-35% of the base’s population, work that is conducted by Hunt Military Communities, a military housing developer. The remaining 65 to 70% of the military personnel find housing in the community, which Green said helps the local economy.
According to information provided via email by Mills, there are about 9,000 military and 9,000 dependents assigned to NAS Whidbey Island.
Among them, 1,451 military employees and 3,500 dependents live in family housing on Navy property, and about 1,200 personnel live in unaccompanied housing. The unaccompanied sailors include those who are deployed, therefore the number can vary. In total, they represent approximately 34% of the total base population, which would make the base compliant with DOD regulations.
“Do I think we have enough housing?” Green said. “As far as the base itself in relation to the DOD policy, yes, we have enough.”
The most recent housing analysis report — the 2021 Housing Requirements Market Analysis Update — projected a 101 community housing unit shortfall by 2026. Green however doesn’t expect a significant increase in sailors, explaining that these reports tend to make overestimations.
“Like all projections, that can change,” Green cautioned.
The problem the base has been experiencing lately is the rising cost of rent outside of the installation’s property, particularly since the pandemic hit, Green said. As a result, there is limited availability of affordable rentals in the community that affects both the sailors and the general population, an issue that Green said the Navy can do nothing about.
Steve Bristow, who is the vice president of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, said the solution lies in the private industry increasing supply, which would bring down rent. Bristow is also a vice president for the Navy League of Oak Harbor. He believes that even if the military built more housing, many sailors would still prefer to live in the community.
“This is especially true for a location like Whidbey, where the regional area is especially desirable,” he wrote in a text.
The Basic Allowance for Housing — or BAH — is a subsidy that gives service members housing compensation, and it’s provided in addition to base pay. The BAH is calculated over the course of six months by collecting data from the local housing market area, such as the median market rent and the average local utility expenditures. The area comprises Whidbey Island, Fidalgo Island, Mount Vernon, Burlington and Sedro Woolley, places that are within an hour drive from the base, according to the market analysis.
This allowance varies based on pay rate. For E01 to E04 service members who were assigned to Whidbey, the 2023 BAH is $1,692 if they have dependents, while it’s $1,302 for unaccompanied members. For an O07 service member with dependents, that is $3,000, and $2,664 if they are unaccompanied. This information is available on the Defense Travel Management Office’s website.
Despite the Basic Allowance for Housing being updated every year, Green said it struggles to keep up with the rent increases that are set by the housing market once the new year kicks off.
“The property managers all know when those new BAH rates come out,” Green said. “So they adjust their rent accordingly.”
Rent prices on the island might lead sailors to seek housing in areas more than an hour away. Bristow also said that people might choose to live off the island for reasons other than unaffordable rent. Some spouses, for example, might have specialty skills that require them to live in larger and distant communities, like Bellingham.
Green said he has heard rumors of sailors living in their car as they cannot afford rent, though he has never encountered any. He said there are resources available to support unhoused personnel, but they need to come forward in order to be identified and helped.
“Not one person has ever stepped forward,” Green said. “My office is here to help and assist people in finding affordable housing.”
Green advises sailors to reach out to his office as soon as they are assigned to the base, so they can get access to a list of properties for rent in the area. Other services include lease reviews and advocacy services for prospective renters.
Commissioner Janet St. Clair acknowledged the challenges of finding affordable housing on the island. Though she did not have any particular observations to make, she encourages community members to give any input that will help develop a Comprehensive Plan Update, which will help shape 20 years of growth in the community.