‘Base-first’ housing policy now being considered beyond Okinawa

By DAVID ALLEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 28, 2009

RELATED STORY: Off-base housing policy in Japan gets mixed reviews from local residents

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — A move now in various stages of progress to reduce the number of military families living off base in Japan is being driven by a need to save U.S. taxpayer money, military leaders in the Pacific say.

The top U.S. military commander in Japan said the policy recently established on Okinawa and being considered by Air Force bases in mainland Japan is to ensure the military more efficient use of base housing, which is built with Japanese government money.

The "base-first" move is also meant to save millions of dollars paid to military families in rental and utility fees for off-base homes.

"When you have available housing on an installation and you’ve got members that are living off base, it’s costing U.S. taxpayers money because they are paying for housing that they don’t need to pay for," Lt. Gen. Edward Rice said during a press conference Thursday at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan.

"We think that’s a win-win. It’s a win for the government of Japan, and it’s a win for the United States government."

According to Japan’s Ministry of Defense, 11,901 Americans on Okinawa under the Status of Forces Agreement — married and single — now live in about 4,000 off-base housing units.

"It costs $20,000 to $30,000 a year for the average military family to live off-base," Lt. Col. David Wilder, commander of Kadena’s 718th Civil Engineer Squadron. "That’s compared to a $2,000 to $3,000 a year maintenance cost for the average unit on base."

That’s the actual average cost the military pays for each base housing unit, he said.

Wilder was unsure how long it will take to reach 95 percent occupancy — the rate officials are aiming for — on Okinawa.

"We’re talking about 800 to 900 families," he said.

"And we’re never really sure how many people are being assigned to Okinawa. We have a good idea of the Air Force numbers, but we usually don’t know how many Marines or soldiers will be coming until they get here."

Methods for achieving higher military housing occupancy are being left to individual base commands, and several have already taken steps.

Officials on Kadena Air Base, who oversee all military housing on Okinawa, estimate they could save more than $30 million a year by making sure base housing has nearly full occupancy.

Kadena’s 18th Wing announced recently that all incoming servicemembers — Air Force, Marines, Army and Navy — arriving on Okinawa after Aug. 1 will have to accept base housing until the occupancy rate of the 8,344 units, which is now 84 percent, reaches 95 percent.

The policy does not affect civilians.

Misawa Air Base in northern Japan may soon follow Kadena’s lead.

"Misawa Air Base independently developed a package that is in review and being staffed to consider implementing an On-Base Family Housing First Policy," said Staff Sgt. Rachel Martinez, spokeswoman for the 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs.

The base’s occupancy rate is 72 percent, she said.

"We currently have 1,956 family housing residences," Martinez said, adding that about 245 units are currently under renovation.

Among changes under consideration at Misawa, she said, is a rule Yokota Air Base put into effect July 1 for single airmen.

"We’ve been directed to be a constrained location," said Yokota spokesman Lt. John Harden.

The new rule requires all newly arriving unaccompanied airman ranked E-6 and below to live on base.

The change was implemented to save money by increasing the occupancy rates of the base dormitories from 82 percent to at least 95 percent, Harden said.

There are 2,639 military family housing units on the base, but occupancy figures were not available Friday.

It was not clear whether Yokota’s policy would be expanded to servicemembers who would qualify for family housing.

Marines on Okinawa established a rule June 2 requiring all unaccompanied Marines and sailors in pay grades E-1 to E-7, W-1 to CWO-3, and officers O-1 to O-3 to live in bachelor quarters.

Single personnel in the higher enlisted and officer ranks need the approval of the Marine Corps Bases Japan commanding general to live off-base.

There is no plan at the moment to require military families to occupy base housing on Navy bases in mainland Japan.

At Yokosuka Naval Base public affairs spokeswoman Michelle Stewart said the base has 2,861 housing units and has met its goal of 95 percent occupancy. Only single sailors E-3 and below are required to live on the base, she said.

Capt. David Herndon, spokesman for Pacific Air Forces in Hawaii, said Wednesday that base-first guidance arose from a November Defense Department policy memo.

"In overseas locations where overseas housing allowance is provided as reimbursement for housing costs, ‘on-base’ first is not mandatory, but should be encouraged where appropriate," the memo stated.

Herdon said PACAF’s aim is to use taxpayers’ money more efficiently by making better use of available resources.

"For now, there is only consideration to mandatorily assign airmen in the Japan installations because of the benefits from host nation agreements," he said.

Stars and Stripes reporters Chiyomi Sumida and Teri Weaver contributed to this report.

Tower apartments and ground-style housing like these at Misawa Air Base are common at U.S. military bases in Japan.

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