US Military Housing, Barracks, and Housing Allowance

What the Recruiter Never Told You About Military Housing

Illustration shows what you need to know about military housing, including on-base housing and off-base housing

Image by Melissa Ling © The Balance 2019 

Due to the nature of their job and the less than average income, service members receive housing allowances or have access to military housing facilities. Housing facilities include barracks for single or unaccompanied soldiers and on-base or near-base housing or apartment units for members with family. These accommodations are low-cost—in some instances free. Eligibility depends on your marital status, dependents, rank, and the availability of empty units at your duty station.

Military Housing for Married Couples or Those with Dependents

If you are married and living with your spouse or minor dependents, you will either live in on-base housing or be given a monetary allowance called Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) to live off-base. The amount of BAH depends on your duty station zip code, your rank, and whether or not you have dependents.

If you are in the Guard or Reserves and entitled to a housing allowance, you will receive a reduced BAH, called BAH Type II. You will receive BAH Type II anytime you are on active duty for less than 30 days. If you are on orders to serve on active duty for 30 days or more, you'll receive the full housing allowance rate, the same as active-duty personnel.

If you have dependents, you will receive the housing allowance, even when staying in the barracks at basic training or technical school/AIT/A-School. This is because the military makes it mandatory for you to provide adequate housing for your dependents. This will be included as part of your regular paycheck, half on the first of the month and a half on the last duty day of the month. For basic training or technical school/AIT/A-School, you will receive the BAH amount for the location where your dependents are residing.

However, if you are not married or divorced and are paying child support, you do not receive full-rate BAH while living in the barracks. In this case, special rules apply, and the member receives BAH-DIFF.

  • Special rules apply for military-married-to-military couples.
  • Unlike basic pay, BAH is an "allowance," not a "pay," and is therefore not taxable.

Military Housing for Singles

If you are single, you can expect to spend the next few years of your military service residing on-base in the dormitory, or barracks. Policies concerning single military members living off-base at government expense vary from service to service, and even from base to base, depending on the occupancy rate of the barracks or dormitories on the particular base.

Army policy allows single members in the paygrade of E-6 and above to live off base at government expense. However, at some bases, E-5s are allowed to move off base at government expense, depending on the barracks occupancy rates of that base.

The Air Force policy generally allows single E-4s, with more than three years of service, and above to reside off-base at government expense.

The Navy policy allows single sailors in the paygrades of E-5 and above, and E-4s with more than four years of service to reside off base and receive a housing allowance.

The Marines allow single E-6s and above to reside off base at government expense. On some bases, depending on the barracks occupancy rate, single E-5s, and even some E-4s are authorized to reside off base.

Air Force and Army Dormitories

If your recruiter promised you condos, you're out of luck. However, all of the services have implemented plans to improve single housing for enlisted personnel.

The Air Force was the first service to get started on the program and are arguably ahead of the other services. All airmen, outside of basic training and technical school are now entitled to a private room. The Air Force started with remodeling barracks into a concept called one-plus-one, which provided a private room, a small kitchen, and a bathroom and shower shared with one other person.

The Air Force has now upgraded its program using a concept called "Dorms-4-Airmen." All new Air Force dormitories (except basic training and technical school) are now designed using this concept. Dormitories under this program are four-bedroom apartments. Airmen have a private room and private bath and share a kitchen, washer and dryer, and a living room with three other airmen.

The Army's standard is a two-bedroom apartment, designed for two Soldiers. Each soldier gets a private bedroom, and they share a kitchen, bathroom, and living room.

The Problem With the Navy

The Navy had a serious problem when this initiative started. Thousands of their junior sailors were living on ships, even when their assigned ships were in port. To construct enough barracks on the Navy base to provide single rooms for all of these sailors would cost a fortune.

The Navy solved this problem by getting permission from Congress to use private industry to construct and operate privatized housing for lower-ranking single Sailors. Like the Army, this design is a two-bedroom apartment. Each Sailor will have a private bedroom, a private bathroom, and share a kitchen, dining area, and living room with another Sailor.

However, under the Navy's Homeport Ashore initiative, Sailors assigned to ships which are in port must share a bedroom until additional funding becomes available to build new complexes.

Like privatized family housing the Sailor would pay the complex management monthly rent (which is equal to their housing allowance). The "rent" covers all utilities and rental insurance. The plan calls for the apartment complexes to include fitness facilities, media centers, and technology centers.

The Marine Concept

The Marines have taken a different route. The Marine Corps believes that lower-ranking enlisted Marines living together is essential to the discipline, unit cohesion, and esprit de corps. Under the Marine Corps program, junior Marines (E-1 to E-3) share a room and a bathroom. Marines in the pay grades of E-4 and E-5 are entitled to a private room.

Dormitory rooms are normally subject to two types of inspections: First, there is the normal or periodic inspection—announced or unannounced—in advance. This is where the commander or First Sergeant (or other designated person) inspects your room to make sure you are abiding by the standards (bed made, trash empty, room clean, etc.)

The second type of inspection is called a "Health and Welfare Inspection." This type of inspection is always unannounced, often occurs about 2:00 A.M., and is comprised of an actual search of the dormitory rooms for contraband (drugs, guns, knives, etc.). At times, these HWIs are accompanied by a "random" urinalysis test, looking for evidence of drug abuse.

Furnishing Your Surroundings

Some services and bases allow you to use your own furniture. Others are very strict about using the provided Government furniture, only. Even if you are required to use Government furniture, you can have your own stereo, television, or computer system.

All in all, most single enlisted people look forward to the day when they can move out of the dormitory.

Moving Out 

At most locations, single members can elect to move out of the dormitory and get a place off-base at their own expense. That means the government will not give them BAH (Housing Allowance), nor will the government give them a food allowance. Unless you get a roommate (or two) it can be hard to make ends meet living off base with just your base pay.

By law, the services cannot allow single members to move off base at government expense unless the base-wide dormitory occupancy rate exceeds 95%.

That means over 95% of all dormitory rooms on the base must have people living in them before anyone can be allowed to move out of the dormitories and receive a housing allowance.

The wrinkle is that space is allocated to specific units, and your unit may be overcrowded while others have space available. As a result, the base-wide occupancy rate is less than 95%, and you won't be authorized to move off-base.

When the base-wide occupancy rate exceeds 95%, the offer to move off-base is based on rank. You may not be allowed to move as those with a higher rank move out, and the occupancy rate drops below 95%. You could still be stuck on-base, with a roommate. The solution to this problem is to periodically reallocate dormitory spaces, but most bases are reluctant to tackle the project any more often than every five years or so. This mismanaged system is a source of frustration among single military members.

On-Base Housing

Most places have limited on-base housing, so there is usually a waiting list (sometimes, more than one year!)

To qualify for on-base housing, you must be residing with a dependent (in most cases, that means a spouse or minor children).

The number of bedrooms you'll be authorized depends on the number and age of the dependents residing with you. Some bases have very, very, nice housing -- on other bases, the housing barely qualifies for slum status. Utilities (trash, water, gas, electric) are normally free. Cable TV and phones are not. Furniture is normally not provided (although many bases have "loan closets," which will temporarily loan you furniture). Appliances, such as stoves and refrigerators, are usually provided. Many on-base houses even have dishwashers.

Clothes washers and dryers are usually not provided, but most units -- at least in the States -- have hookups. Additionally, many bases have laundromats located close to the housing area. Overseas, many housing units are "Condo-Style," and there is a laundry room with washers and dryers located in each stairwell.

Government Family Housing

The insides of occupied housing units are not normally inspected as dormitories are. They may be inspected without notice if the commander receives any safety or sanitary problem reports. The outside of the housing is an entirely different matter. All of the services are pretty strict about dictating exactly how the outside of the house and yard will be maintained. Most of them employ personnel who will drive by each and every housing unit once per week and write tickets for any discrepancies noted.

Receive too many tickets in too short a period, and you will be requested to move off-base.

In the states, most on-base family housing units are duplexes, or sometimes fourplexes. For officers and more senior enlisted members, on-base family housing in the states is usually either duplexes or single dwellings. Sometimes there are fenced-in backyards, and at other bases, there are not. Usually, if the housing unit has a backyard, but no fence, you can get permission to install a fence at your own expense. You have to agree to take the fence down when you move out if the next occupant decides they don't want a fence.

The same is true of almost any improvement you wish to make to on-base family housing. Usually, you can get permission to do self-help improvements, but you must agree to return the house to its original state if the next person to move in doesn't want to accept your improvement.

Overseas, on-base family housing units are generally in the form of high-rise apartment buildings

Moving out of base housing is a lot harder than moving in. This is the one time when the inside of the house will be inspected, and it will be expected to be in immaculate condition. Many people hire professional cleaners before checkout. Some bases have programs where the base itself hires professional cleaners when an occupant moves out, making the process much easier.

More and more military bases are moving to privatized family housing. This housing is maintained, managed, and sometimes built by private industry. The rent for these privatized units is paid to the housing management agency by military pay allotment and is equal to the member's housing allowance.

Off-Base Housing

Instead of living in the dormitories or residing in on-base housing, you may be authorized to live off-base. In this case, the military will pay you BAH. The amount of this nontaxable allowance is dependent upon your rank, marital (dependency) status and the area you (or your dependents) live in. Once per year, the military hires an independent agency to survey the average housing costs in all of the areas where significant amounts of military personnel live. The Per Diem, Travel and Transportation Allowance Committee use this data to compute the amount of BAH you will receive each month.

One of the nice features about the BAH law is that the amount of BAH you receive may never go down while you are living in an area, even if the average cost of housing in that area goes down.

Once you move to a different base, your BAH will be recalculated for the current rate in the new location.

An interesting aspect of BAH is the type of housing that the entitlement is based upon. BAH is based on acceptable housing for an individual (or an individual with dependents). For example, a married E-5 is reimbursed based on what DoD considers minimum acceptable housing, a two-bedroom townhouse or duplex. For an O-5 it is a four-bedroom detached home. While whether or not one has dependents is a factor, the number of dependents is not.

If you move into off-base housing overseas, your monthly entitlement is called OHA (Overseas Housing Allowance) and is recalculated every two weeks. This is because currency rates can fluctuate dramatically overseas, causing housing expenses to go up and down. In addition to OHA, those overseas are entitled to some additional allowances, such as an initial move-in expense allowance, and reimbursement for costs to improve the security of the off-base residence.

If you are authorized to reside off-base, it's very important that you ensure your lease contains a "military clause." A military clause allows you to break your lease in case you are forced to move on official orders.

Special Considerations

If you are married to a non-military member or you have children, your spouse and children are considered to be "dependents" by the military.

The military requires you to provide adequate support (which includes housing) to your dependents. Because of this, if you are married, you receive a housing allowance, at the "with dependent" rate, even if you are living in the single dormitories or barracks.

Living in the barracks or dormitories is mandatory during basic training and job-school and your dependents are not allowed to travel to basic training or job school at government expense. During these periods you receive BAH for the area that your dependents reside.

When you move to your first permanent duty station, the rules change. Your dependents are allowed to move there at government expense. If they don't move there, that is considered your choice. In such cases, you receive BAH (at the "with dependent" rate) for the amount of your duty station, regardless of where your dependent is actually living.

As long as you are still married, to give up BAH, you would have to reside in on-base family housing. However, unless your dependents move to your duty location, you are not authorized to reside in on-base family housing, because the rules say to qualify, your dependents must be living with you.

If there is extra space available in the barracks or dormitories, you are allowed to live there, and still, receive your BAH. However, now that the military is trying to give all single people living in the dormitories their own room, most bases do not have any extra space available in their dormitories. Therefore, as a married person who has voluntarily elected not to be accompanied by their dependents, you will likely be required to live off-base. You will receive BAH for the area you are assigned to. If you are allowed to live in the dormitory or barracks, space available, you must be prepared to move out, with little or no notice, in case space is needed (although most commanders and first sergeants will try to give at least two weeks notice, if possible).

The rules change for overseas assignments. If you are assigned overseas and elect not to be accompanied by your dependents, you can live in the barracks or dormitories on base and still receive BAH to provide adequate housing support in the states for your dependent(s).

How the Military Family Housing Works

Here's what will most likely happen when you report to your first permanent duty station. You'll arrive with your family and stay in temporary family billeting. This is sort of an on-base "hotel" for incoming and outgoing military members and their families. It's a good idea to call billeting as soon as you know what day you are going to arrive to make reservations.

You'll also be assigned a "sponsor" before your arrival (you'll get a letter with the name and phone number of your sponsor). A sponsor is a person in your squadron who is assigned to help make your move easier. You can call your sponsor when you know your arrival date and they can make the billeting reservations for you. There is a small cost for on-base family billeting. You can stay in on-base family billeting for a maximum of 30 days (the base can extend this to 60 days if there is space available).

If you can't get into on-base family billeting, you'll have to rent a motel off-base. Whether or not you stay in on-base family billeting or off-base motel, you will continue to receive your authorized housing allowance (and food allowance). Additionally, for the first ten days following your arrival, you'll receive a special allowance, called TLE (Temporary Lodging Expense). This special allowance reimburses you for everything (meals and lodging), up to $180 per day, per family.

After the ten days is up, you'll have to pay for billeting or motel out of your pocket (although you'll still be receiving your housing allowance and sustenance allowance).

You'll visit the housing office and (if you like), put your name on the on-base family housing list. At this time, they can tell you approximately how long it will take before an on-base house becomes available. If an on-base house is not immediately available (or, if you don't want to live on base), you'll visit the off-base housing referral section, which is within the Housing Office. They can give you a list of local rentals that have decided to list themselves with the base. You are not obligated to use this list.

After you find a place that you want to live, you take a copy of the lease (before you sign it) to the housing referral office. They check the lease to make sure it contains a military clause that allows you to break the lease in case you have to move due to military orders. Make sure that the military hasn't put the location on the off-limits list, which is for places that have proven racial discrimination, known drug use.

If you are living off-base, and your on-base family housing becomes available, the military will hire a moving company to move your property from your off-base rental to your on-base family housing unit.