Military Housing:

Enhancements Needed to Housing Allowance Process and Information Sharing among Services

GAO-11-462: Published: May 16, 2011. Publicly Released: May 16, 2011.

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The Department of Defense (DOD) paid active duty military personnel over $18 billion in housing allowances in fiscal year 2010. DOD sets housing allowance rates annually based on market costs of rent, utilities, and renter's insurance. Also, DOD has identified 26 installations significantly impacted by expected growth in personnel due to various rebasing actions. The Senate report accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 (S. 3454) directed GAO to review DOD's rate-setting process, among other issues. GAO determined (1) whether there are enhancements to strengthen DOD's rate-setting process and (2) whether service members have encountered challenges in obtaining off-base housing. GAO reviewed program documents, including a 2010 DOD report to Congress, analyzed data, and interviewed DOD officials and subject matter experts.

DOD uses a data-intensive process to set housing allowance rates that officials said generally meets program goals. Key quality assurance steps in DOD's process include involving installations in the rental data collection process and verifying data prior to calculating allowance rates. However, some enhancements related to (1) providing additional information to installation officials and service members, (2) defining a key term for data collection, and (3) developing more accurate cost estimates for budget requests could further strengthen the process. First, installation officials and service members do not have access to information on the three costs that comprise the allowance--rent, utilities, and renter's insurance--because DOD issues a single rate for each pay grade. As a result, installation officials cannot help ensure the accuracy of the rates and service members are not fully informed of potential housing costs. Second, in areas with low vacancy rates, officials said it can be difficult to find enough rental properties that meet the definition of available because the definition is limited to rentals on the market within 4 to 6 weeks prior to data collection. As a result, properties that some installations submit may not be fully representative of rental costs in the area or representative properties may be excluded, increasing the possibility of inaccurate rates in an area. Third, the military services have consistently underestimated the amount needed to pay the allowance by $820 million to $1.3 billion each year since 2006 when preparing budget requests, in part because the services' processes do not allow them to accurately estimate the number of service members who will receive the housing allowance. GAO recognizes the difficulties in developing accurate housing allowance cost estimates. However, as a result of consistently underestimating the amount needed to pay the allowance--which is an entitlement for service members and must be paid--DOD has had to shift funds that were budgeted for other programs, which could disrupt the funding of the other programs. Also, DOD's budget does not provide the full picture of housing allowance costs, limiting the ability of Congress and DOD to make fully informed funding decisions. Some service members have encountered challenges in obtaining off-base housing at some growth installations. Military service data show current housing deficits, ranging from about 1 percent of total demand to more than 20 percent, at 19 of 26 installations DOD identified as significantly impacted by growth. Installation officials GAO interviewed expect such housing challenges to continue or worsen. DOD uses a number of tools to address these housing challenges that could be used at other installations, such as expanding housing privatization projects and encouraging collaboration between installations and communities. GAO found that installations share information on these tools on an ad hoc basis, such as through e-mail messages or at conferences, because DOD does not have a formal communications process that would allow them to store and share such information. As a result, DOD cannot ensure that installations that are currently experiencing housing challenges or may experience such challenges in the future will have the needed information on various tools that can be used to address these challenges. GAO is recommending that DOD (1) provide information on the costs that comprise the housing allowance to installation officials and service members, (2) assess the benefits and drawbacks of revising the definition of "available" properties for data collection, (3) improve its processes to estimate allowance costs for the budget, and (4) develop a formal process for installations to share information on housing tools. DOD generally concurred with all four of GAO's recommendations.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To promote more accurate budgeting by DOD, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and the military services to more fully identify the causes of inaccurate cost estimates for the Basic Allowance for Housing program and develop and implement procedures to improve these estimates. At a minimum, these procedures should include processes to more accurately estimate the number of service members who will receive the allowance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June and July 2011, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) led a working group of representatives of the active, reserve, and guard components of each military service to better understand and document the military services' procedures for estimating housing allowance costs and better understand the causes of inaccuracies in past estimates. The working group identified issues and recommended actions for the active and reserve components to implement to improve the process to estimate housing allowance costs. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and the military services have begun to implement some of the recommended actions, as well as other actions designed to help improve the accuracy of housing allowance estimates. For example, the working group identified an issue that some components used a quarterly report from the Defense Manpower Data Center to check the number of personnel receiving the housing allowance while others did not use this data. The working group recommended that the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) provide the report to all components and that office now provides the report to the components. We believe that the increased attention to this issue should help improve the accuracy of housing allowance cost estimates.

    Recommendation: To enhance the accuracy of the housing allowance rates, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Director of the Defense Travel Management Office to more fully assess the benefits and drawbacks of revising the definition of "available" rental properties used for data collection purposes, either for all military housing areas or only those military housing areas that meet a certain low vacancy threshold.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In comments on the draft report, DOD stated that it would direct the data collection contractor to accept properties advertised for rent even if they would not be available for occupancy until a future date to address the concern that many of the most desirable properties are never vacant. As a result, the contractor revised the definition of "available" in its data collection guidance to installations and its training course on the data collection process to clarify that the data submissions can include properties that will be available at a future date. This clarification should help officials in areas with low vacancy rates to identify and submit additional properties that are more representative of the current market costs for adequate housing for comparable civilians in the same area, potentially increasing the accuracy of housing allowance rates in the area.

    Recommendation: To enhance the transparency of the housing allowance rates, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Director of the Defense Travel Management Office to revise policies to provide information on the three costs that comprise the housing allowance rate (rent, utilities, and renter's insurance) by geographic area and housing profile to installation housing officials to better ensure local-market-based accuracy and to service members to increase understanding of the rate when selecting housing.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Starting with the housing allowance rates for 2012, which were published in December 2011, DOD published a breakdown of the three components of the housing allowance rate for each of the military housing areas. As a result, installation officials and service members now have access to information about the costs that comprise the housing allowance rate, which should help installation officials to use their knowledge of the local market area to help ensure the accuracy of the rates and help service members to make more informed decisions about costs in their area based on the data that DOD used to set the housing allowance rate.

    Recommendation: To ensure that current or future growth installations that experience housing challenges have access to information on tools to address these challenges, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense (Acquisition, Technology and Logistics) and the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Installations and Environment) to develop a communications process so that installations can more routinely share best practices and their use of tools and mechanisms to address housing challenges.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2014, the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Installations and Environment updated its web site to provide links to the housing web sites of each of the military services, providing access to information about housing in one centralized location. As a result, installation officials have improved access to information on the various tools that other services may be using to address housing challenges.

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