Pensacola housing crisis: As competition for housing grows, these veterans are losing out

You don’t have to be destitute in Pensacola to be desperate these days. Sky-high rent prices are placing middle class households in fear of becoming homeless.

“I’ve got a little bit of money in the bank. But I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Karen Alexander, a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran.

Despite painful health problems stemming from time spent hauling heavy equipment through Korean forests in service to her country, Alexander has lived proudly alone, discounting two large service dogs, in a modest home for the past four years.

But that’s all about to change.

“I’m exasperated by this, y’all,” she said. “I’m frustrated! Where are we going to go?”

Alexander, 66, is one of many retired military veterans who rent homes on Naval Air Station Pensacola property who are learning they will not be permitted to renew their leases this year.

While on-base housing is reserved for active duty military members, retirees and Department of Defense employees can rent such homes if there is a surplus of available houses. But availability has run out.

Due to skyrocketing rent and mushrooming mortgage costs, on-base housing has become the only affordable option for many new-to-the-area sailors stationed at NAS Pensacola.

Enough sailors are being transferred to NAS Pensacola who can’t afford the area’s rent that the U.S. Navy has communicated with the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce about how to fix the problem.

“It’s been in the past year. Definitely prices have gone up. We all know it,” said NAS Pensacola spokesman Jason Bortz. “Housing prices are just skyrocketing right now, and so are rental prices. As they’ve gone up, we’re seen more demand for sailors to live on base.”

The leases that DOD employees and veterans — like Alexander and her tightknit community of about 20 retirees who live at Corry Station — signed to live in their on-base homes included a legal clause that’s now unsettling them.

“There was clause in their lease that says if we reach a certain capacity and we need the room for active duty, we won’t renew your lease,” Bortz said. “It’s not that we evict them. It’s just that once they reach the end of their term, we won’t renew their lease.”

Alexander and her friends have already or will receive a 90-day notice on their doors explaining they’ll have to explore other housing options outside their comfort zones in a bullish housing market.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Alexander said. “I always thought I was going to go out of here feet first.”

Housing prices have climbed to such heights that even sailors who receive a Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, are in some cases unable to find places that they can afford to live in Pensacola.

A BAH is essentially a monthly stipend to offset housing cost for sailors who are permitted to live off base, and a BAH is not chump change.

The amount of an individual BAH is determined by a sailor’s rank and geographical region.

The lowest possible BAH amount that an E1 sailor living in Pensacola with dependents can receive is $1,593 a month, while E9 sailors in Pensacola receive BAHs of $1,905 per month.

As of Wednesday, an O4 sailor receives a BAH of $2,013 per month in Pensacola.

“But with what BAH is right now, some of our sailors can’t find a place in downtown to rent for their BAH amount because rental prices have gone up so much,” Bortz said.

NAS Pensacola’s approximately 600 on-base dwellings have reach 97% capacity.

“Years ago when we started this, we weren’t at full capacity,” Bortz said, referring to privatized housing on-base. “But as the housing market downtown has changed, rental prices have gone up, the housing market’s prices have gone up, and a lot of our young enlisted who are coming into the area are having a hard time affording a house or even renting a house downtown.”

Military veterans Karen Alexander and Patricia Pryor voice their frustrations after learning they are losing their military-issued housing to make room for active-duty service members. They worry about finding affordable places to live because of the current housing situation in the Pensacola area.

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Alexander and her friends knew there a chance when they moved into on-base housing that one day they might be forced to move away from their homes at Corry Village at Corry Station.

But as former military men and women or military spouses, they liked the idea of living on base as they grew older, felt safe there and never thought they would actually be forced to leave.

Patricia Pryor moved into Corry Village five years ago with husband, a 26-year career U.S. Navy veteran.

“I intended to die here,” she said. “I’m too old to be moving all over the countryside.”

Pryor, 78, and her husband’s lease is up in September.

Frank Gregory, 72, said his lease at Corry Village ends in August.

“The schools down here are not that long,” Gregory said, referring to NAS Pensacola’s education and training programs. “They are moving lifers out of here for people who are going to be here for six, seven, eight or nine months.”

And although she has fallen and broken bones three times in the four years that she’s lived at Corry Village, Alexander said she doesn’t want to live anywhere else.

“It’s just been a really good place for me to live,” she said.

Alexander was born and raised in Myrtle Grove and married her sweetheart right out of Escambia High School.

“He said all his jobs were going to be overseas, and I said, well, if that’s the case, I need to join the Air Force, and I did,” Alexander said. “Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t last, and there I was in the Air Force.

“But, no,” she continued, laughing, “I certainly enjoyed it.”

Alexander served as a logistician in the Air Force between 1981 and 1994 and is now classified as a 100% disabled veteran with multiple health problems that started with her hips, she explained. “I think what happened to me is what gets a lot of women.”

“I did a remote tour in Korea for a year. It was a base where we didn’t have family, and we played war for real,” Alexander said. “At that time, there was a real big concern about chemical warfare, and I had to wear and carry so much gear: sidearm, gas mask. Oh! It was a lot of stuff, and I think it just, you know, got me.”

Alexander left the Air Force with the rank of captain and bought a house next to the one she grew up in. But her parents passed away, and as the years went by, she realized, “I didn’t need to be in a big house. So, I sold it and decided to rent here — downsized and all of that.”

Like her friends Gregory and Pryor, Alexander pays $1,500 a month to rent her single-story house at Corry Village. The rent is much less than they would pay for the equivalent space off base, and it’s not as if Alexander doesn’t have some amount of money saved.

“I’m not destitute,” she said. “None of us are destitute.”

But still, the prospect of finding a new home in an increasingly unaffordable Pensacola housing market is “scary.”

When she takes into account that wherever she moves will have to allow and have enough space to accommodate her two service animals — and that it cannot be an upstairs apartment because of her limitations of movement — the prospect becomes terrifying.

“There’s rental property out there,” she said. “It’s out there, but we can’t afford it.”

Her friend, Gary Hansen, a veteran who breathes with the assistance of an oxygen tank, received a 90-day notice on his door. This week he started packing his possessions, maneuvering around the new stacks of cardboard boxes in his wheelchair.

Karen Alexander, a disabled veteran, voices her frustration Wednesday over the fact that she and other retirees are losing her military-issued housing to make space for active-duty members.

The problem is going to get worse this summer when thousands of U.S. Navy sailors across the country receive new PCS, or Permanent Change of Station, orders in June and July and NAS Pensacola will receive an influx of incoming active duty personnel.

“Obviously, housing is an issue, not just for the military, but for a lot of folks, but we are acutely aware that it is impacting the base and the folks that are trying to find housing,” said Todd Thomson, president of the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber established what it called the West Florida Defense Alliance about five years ago to build successful relationships between the military and the community.

Thomson said that a portion of the WFDA’s mission will be turned toward addressing the housing issues facing Pensacola sailors.

“I mean, obviously the supply and demand issue, with the supply so limited, that’s going to push those prices up,” Thompson said. “And so we’re trying to see what we can do. But yeah, we know it’s an issue.”

A WFDA workgroup has been formed to investigate the crisis and begin looking for solutions as early as next week.

“I know that there are some Recovery Relief funds that are going to be coming to local government, and I don’t know the plans for those yet,” Thomson added. “That may be an option.”

But even if a solution is found for the sailors, Alexander and her friends who are no longer active duty they feel unsafely alone.

“Where are we going to do?” Alexander, who wore a cast on her foot, asked Pryor, who had a brace on her knee.

“I don’t know,” Pryor said.

“How are we going to do it, honey?” Alexander asked.

“Honey,” Pryor said, “I don’t know.”

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