Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of requirements and analysis at Coast Guard headquarters, for 13 years. She serves as an advisor for the Military Family Advisory Network and a research analyst for Blue Star Families.
Written by Shelley Kimball
This time of year is fraught with worry for any military family on the move. But this summer has an added level of uncertainty as it is the first INCONUS moving season requiring Coast Guard families to apply for mandatory housing.
There are pros and cons to living in military housing, so we thought we’d help sort it all out.
When the Medolla family put Kodiak, Alaska on their assignment request, part of the reason was for option of living in housing.
“We purposely chose Kodiak because at our other units we purchased our homes, and we wanted to live in housing to make house hunting and living easier,” said Danielle Medolla, an ombudsman in Kodiak and the 2014 Armed Forces Insurance Coast Guard Spouse of the Year.
Medolla’s family is one of thousands living in Coast Guard housing. There are more than 3,700 houses in the program.
The highest concentration of housing is in three places, according to Melissa Frederickson, the chief of the Coast Guard housing programs division. The Bay Area in California, which includes Alameda, Concord and Novato, has a total of 828 dwellings within the three. Kodiak has 406 homes, and Cape Cod, Mass. has 345 homes. The rest of housing is relatively scattered throughout the country.
So here’s the scoop on how mandatory housing works. Housing is mandatory for Coast Guard families when it is available. There are reasons a family can be released, such as medical issues, but the Area Housing Authority takes it on a case-by-case basis. Starting this year, every family with orders had to fill out an application for assignment to housing. That’s because, financially speaking, the Coast Guard can’t afford the empty houses.
“We can’t just let it sit vacant.” Frederickson said.
At this point, there are about 465 homes available to be filled, in no one particular area, Frederickson said. There are also other homes set to be sold off because they are in areas less necessary for housing. Selling them makes way for the opportunity for more housing in other areas. For example, there are greater needs for housing in places like Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico, she said.
“One of the things we are focusing is right-sizing the inventory,” Frederickson said. “We are making a real effort to just have housing where we need it.”
Last year, Linda Kapral Papp, the former ombudsman at large, said that the Coast Guard cannot afford to pay for both BAH and housing, so families needed to use housing when available.
It became mandatory this year after they studied what housing was available, what condition it was in, and where housing is most needed.
“We really needed to get our arms around the inventory and make sure it’s adequate,” Frederickson said.
When it is adequate and available, families have to use it. What is adequate? That means it is functional, and it does not pose a health or safety risk. So frustrating floor plans or old appliances aren’t enough to get out of it. Frederickson said some of the more common reasons for releases from housing are family medical requirements, special needs, or home ownership in the area.
“Compelling circumstances are reviewed on case-by-case basis,” Frederickson said. “The last thing we want to do is create a hardship for a family.”
One of the fears families have about housing is that they won’t like it. Some spouses said they had poor experiences with housing that was run down or was not move-in ready when they arrived, but they did not want to speak about it publicly. Frederickson said that no families should accept housing if it is in poor condition.
“Members and their families should never move into a house that is in a state of disrepair,” she said.
There is a system in place to protect families from such a situation, she said, beginning with the check-in process.
“One of the ways we ensure housing is move-in ready is an inspection must be conducted with the member upon check in. The member signs the inspection report and they then have five days to notify the housing office in writing of any discrepancies,” she said. “If maintenance issues are noted anytime after check-in, the member should contact their local housing office right away. The housing office will work with the maintenance staff to ensure discrepancies/repairs are resolved as quickly as possible.”
Another fear about moving into housing is the fact that it is sight unseen. Medolla said waiting to find out what her new home would look like was stressful.
“There are so many different housing types that it make you crazy,” Medolla said. “I kept looking in empty houses wondering if one of them was going to be mine.”
(It turned out well in the end, she said, as her home in Kodiak is in a great location with beautiful views.)
In some areas with housing, spouses can post to Facebook to ask questions about home layouts or to provide photos to families considering moving to the area, but there isn’t really a set way to find out before check-in. Frederickson said it may be possible to see homes ahead of check-in, if the local housing office is amenable.
“As for seeing houses prior to check-in, that would be dependent on whether the assigned house was available and the local housing office could schedule it with the member,” she said. “It is not the norm, but the member can certainly reach out to their local housing officer to see if it would be possible.”
The condition of housing is a priority, Frederickson said. Therefore, next on the agenda for the housing program is to complete ongoing assessments of unaccompanied housing, or barracks. By the end of the summer, the results should be in, and any necessary improvements will begin.
“We’re strategically focusing on improving the material condition on the housing,” Frederickson said. “Mandatory housing without quality homes is contrary.”
Felicia Trusevitch, who is just wrapping up as the ombudsman in Cape May, N.J., has lived in housing there for five years. She said she has seen families frustrated because housing can be smaller or older than they are used to, and other neighboring families may not care about taking care of the small things like their lawns or the trash.
“People never want to move in because everyone feels they can get better, but on the flip side, they want more money,” Trusevitch said. “Here at TRACEN we have 174 units. What if they were all left empty? That’s a lot of money to lose.”
In her situation, she said, living in housing has been extremely convenient. She said she has shopping, restaurants, the gym and MWR events right outside her door. Additionally, she is able to lean on her neighbors for the small favors, like helping find a lost pet, needing a grocery item, or just an hour to herself.
“I can’t answer for all military housing, but here it’s a wonderful community,” she said.
A prime benefit of living in housing is saving money, both for the service and for the family members. Medolla said that paying for heating in Kodiak can be a huge expense, so not having to foot that bill helps.
Tami Smith lived in housing in Chincoteague, Va. When she and her husband first married. She also said the lack of an electric bill was a plus.
Another benefit of housing, Trusevitch, Medolla and Smith said, is the sense of community. Trusevitch said that the close friendships and tight-knit support are vital when active duty members are deployed, people are going through medical issues, or there are some other kinds of emergencies. However, it isn’t always perfect.
“We do not all need to be best friends, but we come together when needed,” Trusevitch said. “Most difficult is probably if two members do not get along. There really is not a thing that can be done. You need to learn to separate yourself and your family at times.”
All three, Trusevitch, Medolla and Smith, cautioned that sometimes all of that togetherness can be a double-edged sword.
“You work together, hang out together. Party together. It was just to much closeness,” Smith said. Her advice for others entering housing? “Stay out of the drama,” she said. “Surround yourself with people who can rise above it.”
Medolla echoed their advice.
“I would say be kind and friendly to everyone but choose those with whom you confide in carefully,” Medolla said. “Nothing moves faster then a juicy rumor.”
On the other hand, she said, living closely with families from other types of Coast Guard units has been positive.
“I love the safety and sense of community I have in housing,” Medolla said. “I think it’s great to hear about Coastie life as a whole.”
Trusevitch said that living in housing turned out better than she had anticipated.
“I definitely say to all, never say never about loving housing. I was not keen on this tour, but it really turned out to be life-changing for us. The good and the bad. We love it here,” she said. “Housing does not make your tour wonderful — your relationships and experiences do. Give it a try. You never know what you may find, and you may surprise yourself because we did.”
Join in our discussion, and help other Coasties understand what it’s like to live in housing. Where have you lived in housing, and what was your experience? Tell us in the comments below.
For more general information, visit the U.S. Coast Guard Housing Division’s website.
For more information about mandatory housing, here is a list of frequently asked questions.
To see what housing is available, check out this state by state list.
Contact your local housing office.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.