On-base living without military orders
No one in Tracie Edmondson's immediate family is in the military, but they live on an Army base.
At Aberdeen Proving Ground, that's far from unusual.
Civilian federal workers and military retirees are living in 44 percent of the installation's occupied homes.
Picerne Military Housing, which manages the residences, sees offering rental units to these new categories as a no-brainer: Fill some of the base's hundreds of empty homes, often with people who work on base, and bring in revenue to help cover renovation costs.
In some ways, this twist on base living is a lot like any rental situation. Picerne said it sets rents for the two-, three- and four-bedroom homes based on the broader market, with two-bedrooms at about $1,200 a month. Nearby amenities include pools, golf courses, boat slips and sports leagues.
Tenants just happen to live cheek-by-jowl with the largest employer in Harford County. And when they're coming or going, they need to show ID to a police officer.
"I actually tell people I live in a gated community," said Edmondson, laughing.
Edmondson, a financial management analyst at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, was among the first to take advantage of the expanded definition of who could live at APG.
When she and her two daughters moved in three years ago, they were squeezed into a two-bedroom home with one bathroom — not ideal. But Picerne — which took over in December 2009 — offered her a four-bedroom home after renovating it.
"I don't know what it looked like prior, but when I moved in, it was like I was moving into a brand-new home," Edmondson said.
The Department of Defense says it doesn't know how many bases offer something similar because almost all military housing is managed by private contractors such as Picerne. Companies with vacant homes on their hands are allowed to rent them at market rates to tenants who aren't military families — giving priority according to a list that starts with single soldiers and ends with the general public — but they don't have to report back with statistics.
Picerne also rents homes to federal workers and military retirees at Fort Meade, but not as many homes as the 254 rented to those groups at APG, reflecting the shifting nature of the Harford base over the decades.
During the First and Second World Wars, Aberdeen overflowed with soldiers. Today, the test, research and other work done there is performed largely by civilians.
The installation gained thousands of federal employees while giving up soldiers in the national base reshuffling that ended last year.
Picerne said just 372 of the base's 1,007 homes are needed for military families. But the influx of federal workers, many from New Jersey, created demand from a different demographic. Some live on base during the week and go home to New Jersey on weekends, said Angela French Marcum, a spokeswoman for Picerne.
Others didn't have to go far to enroll in what Picerne calls the surplus housing program.
David B. Pickett retired from the Army as a sergeant first class in 2010 after its ordnance school, where he worked as a chief instructor and then an equal-opportunity adviser, moved from APG to Fort Lee, Va. Now he works for the Communications-Electronics Command — and he's living in the same base house he moved into in 2007.
Staying put meant not having to worry that his daughter would have to switch schools midstream — she attends Aberdeen High School, near the base. But there was more to it than just that.
"I wanted to stay on base," said Pickett, 43. "I think it was like a safety net, being secured on base."
And it's hard to beat his commute: three and a half minutes by car. He doesn't have to fuel up very often.
Pickett has seen cheaper places to live off-base, but says the brief commute, the gas savings and base security are worth the difference.
But Edmondson is convinced that base housing is less expensive than the alternatives. The townhouse where she lived in Havre de Grace cost $1,700 a month before utilities. Now her rent is $1,565 — utilities included.
Also included: Lawn care — and a surprising level of home maintenance.
"I don't even have to change a light bulb," she said. "They will come and change the light bulb. I was like, 'What?'"
Jacquette Carter, who works for the Army Contracting Command at APG, moved in almost three years ago. She was living in Virginia when she applied for the job and heard from a friend about the civilian on-base option.
She's retired from the military, so she's lived on bases before. She liked the idea of some familiarity in an unfamiliar place.
"It worked out well because I don't really know the area," she said.
The main downside she sees is that the installation gate near her home closes at 7 p.m. during the week and stays closed through the weekend. If she needs to run errands then, there's only one way out, and it's a longer drive.
Edmondson's daughters, ages 15 and 18, aren't wild about the extra hurdle a military installation poses when they want friends to come visit. But she likes knowing they're on base, where "everything's OK."
As it happens, this isn't her first time at APG. Her former husband was in the military, and they lived on the base in the 1990s. Now she and her daughters are one street over.
"I was like, 'Man, is this full circle,'" Edmondson said.
By the numbers
1,007: Homes at Aberdeen Proving Ground
574: Occupied homes
254: Homes rented to civilian federal workers or military retirees
44 percent: Share of occupied homes not used by active military residents
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