The growth of Fort Drum and its fluctuating soldier population have always complicated the housing market around Watertown. But the Army post throws another factor into the mix: soldier’s housing allowances. They just went up.
As of January 1, the Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, rates across the military went up an average of 5 percent. In the Fort Drum area, it’s up around 13 percent. Junior enlisted soldiers have gone from receiving $948 per month to $1,071 per month, to cover the cost of housing and utilities.
So, good for soldiers. But why does this matter to anyone else?
John Bartow heads the Tug Hill Commission, a state agency that assists local governments. He said the housing allowance is both a response to, and an influence on, market conditions. “In the last three years, we’ve seen BAH go up 27 percent. That has been a factor in the market, particularly as supply was still low,” he said. “So as BAH was becoming more equitable for soldiers and their dependents – plus we had high demand on a limited supply – rents were at least not going down. If not, they were going up.”
The military calculates the allowance based on what it thinks soldiers need to get decent housing around their base. But local civilians often complain that landlords tie their rents to the allowance, pricing them out of the market.
Jim Wright is executive director of the Development Authority of the North Country. He says the area has always had a landlords’ market. “Because we've had inadequate supply, the rates, in terms of the rental rates, escalated significantly because the military has a BAH that they can pay. So it's really the local population – the residents of Jefferson and surrounding counties – that have been adversely affected,” he said.
Officials say the picture is improving for everyone – soldiers who want choice in housing, close to base, and lower-income civilians who need somewhere affordable and decent to live. That’s because Fort Drum’s population is stabilizing. As the Afghanistan war winds down, more soldiers are home, and their families are more likely to join them.
Kevin Jordan is on the housing committee of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization. “We had upwards of between 19,000 and 20,000 soldiers – those were the high numbers at Fort Drum a few years ago,” he said. “But if you're in a situation where 7,8, or 9,000 of them are deployed, the housing situation that you need is very different than if there's around 17,000 soldiers, and most of them are home on a regular basis.”
Planning by local government has also helped. Leaders set a goal of building 1,100 new rental units to create a healthy market, and that’s nearly been reached, with federal and state incentives for including some affordable units.
“You want to be able to provide housing for all sectors of the population. So that's both market rate and affordable,” Jordan said. “But at the same time, you don't want rents to go so low that it's a disincentive for landlords to keep reinvesting in their properties as well.”
Officials say all that building will largely override the effects of the rising housing allowance for soldiers. Bartow is optimistic. “As this market stabilizes, we won’t see rents rising as rapidly. We may, in fact, in the future, see BAH going down.”
Now, local officials are turning their attention to improving the city’s older housing stock. Watertown and Jefferson County have both applied for state grants that would fund rehab work on existing properties.