Junior enlisted sailors assigned to Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, are looking at whether to move into costly trailers or off-base apartments now that the base has closed a barracks for renovations and repair.
Military.com reporter Konstantin Toropin first reported on the closure of the barracks for about 60 junior enlisted sailors, which has prompted some people to post on social media that the existing lack of affordable housing at and around Naval Air Station Key West is only getting worse.
Naval Air Station Key West is demolishing one of its two unaccompanied housing buildings and conducting $11 million of maintenance on the other building for sailors in the paygrades of E-1 to E-3 as well as E-4 sailors with fewer than four years of service, said Arwen FitzGerald, a spokeswoman for Navy Region Southeast. About 19 of the 60 displaced sailors are still looking for housing.
“The CO [commanding officer] has confirmed her commitment to not displace any sailor from the affected UH [unaccompanied housing] building until they have appropriate accommodations,” FitzGerald told Task & Purpose.
One solution that is available to the sailors is living in two-bedroom rental trailers, which currently cost up to $3,937 per month. The rent will increase to up to $4,402 starting in October. Single E-3 sailors receive a housing allowance of $2,364 per month.
FitzGerald explained that the monthly rent would be divided between the two sailors living in the trailers. That means each would pay up to $2,200 per month – slightly less than their Basic Allowance for Housing.
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The 36 trailers were originally offered through the base’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation program as vacation rentals that are now available to sailors while their barracks are being renovated, FitzGerald told Task & Purpose on Monday. The trailers are brand new and feature many amenities that the barracks did not have, including a full kitchen, and a living area; and the sailors would not have to pay for utilities.
However, the trailers are located about 8 miles from where sailors work, and that can cause transportation problems, said a sailor assigned to Naval Air Station Key West, who asked not to be identified to avoid possible retaliation.
Another issue with using the trailers is the Navy is expecting its most junior sailors who have not spent much time at Naval Air Station Key West to go out and find roommates, the sailor said.
“In a barracks, the Navy assigns you a roommate,” the sailor told Task & Purpose. “In this trailer situation, the Navy expects for most inexperienced sailors to ‘figure it out.’ There’s just a myriad of issues here and Band-Aid solutions like vacation rentals are too short-sighted.”
FitzGerald said unaccompanied sailors also have the option of renting houses on base or finding off-base apartments.
Naval Air Station Key West has privatized housing, but sailors who want to rent homes must wait up to four months right now because it is the time of year when troops and their families get orders to move to new bases, she said. For unaccompanied sailors, the base offers unfurnished three-bedroom homes that cost between $2,950 to $3,750 per month, depending on the location.
“You don’t have to live in Key West proper,” FitzGerald said. “There’s plenty of islands that if you go North that do offer cheaper [rents] if you want to have an apartment all to yourself. But if you want to live in Key West proper, most people have a roommate. It’s just the skyrocketing cost of living anywhere in America now. It’s getting expensive.”
But finding an island in the Florida Keys with cheaper rents could involve living an hour’s commute away from Naval Air Station Key West, said the sailor, who talked to Task & Purpose.
The housing situation is especially difficult for sailors assigned to the base who are living away from their families – who are already waiting to rent homes on base, the sailor said.
“I got a sailor on my couch who has been here for two weeks without a home, [he] has until the 17th of June to move into base housing,” the sailor said. “Then he will bring his wife and 1-year -old back down here. He’s thinking about getting an Airbnb because he misses his family and it’s his only option.”
Rep. Carlos Antonio Gimenez, a Republican Congressman whose district includes Key West, said that his office is talking to officials at the base about the housing issue. “We all share a commitment to ensuring our service members have access to quality and affordable housing,” Gimenez said in a statement to Task & Purpose.
Some commenters on social media have pointed out that the Naval Air Station Key West has long had a lack of affordable housing for enlisted sailors. One Navy veteran told Task & Purpose that he lived in a tent on the base’s campground for roughly a week in January 2019 because he could not find an apartment within his budget.
“The single E-4 BAH [Basic Allowance for Housing] rates are barely enough to get a livable place in town down there if you’re lucky and the housing waitlist was at least a couple of months long,” said the veteran, who asked not to be identified to avoid any recriminations from the Navy.
The Naval Air Station Key West housing situation is just the latest example of sailors facing untenable living conditions. In February, Navy Times revealed that sailors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, had gone without hot water in their barracks for years, forcing the Navy to finally fix the problems.
More recently, the Navy began moving sailors off the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, where several crew members have died by suicide as the ship has undergone a lengthy renovation. But the Navy only acted after its top enlisted sailor told the George Washington’s crew that there was nothing anyone could do to make the ship more habitable.
“What you’re not doing is sleeping in a foxhole like a Marine might be doing,” Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith told sailors aboard the George Washington on April 22. “What you are doing is going home at night, most nights, unlike the [deployed aircraft carrier] Harry S Truman. So, when you’re here, some of it is that you have some more stability in that you’re here. The downside is some of the shit that you have to go through logistically will drive you crazy.”