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Self-inflicted wound? – Chief of Defence Staff admits to serious shortage of affordable military housing

April 2022

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for our chronically underfunded, underequipped, undermanned and underappreciated Canadian Armed Forces, Chief of Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre admitted on 14 April something that anyone in the military or who follows military issues has known for years: a lack of affordable housing options for military members is bad and getting worse.

“Now we’re somewhere in the neighbourhood of 4,000 to 6,000 units short on our bases, which is also accentuating the housing problem,” General Eyre said.

The Toronto Star reports that “An internal Defence Department report on military housing published in December said there were around 12,000 units across the country, which provided accommodation to about 20 per cent of Armed Forces members.” Further exacerbating available RHUs is that at any one time, an estimated 10 to 15 per cent are unavailable for occupancy due to maintenance and other issues.

While there are barracks on base for single members, especially young service members, families need more than a single room with shared washroom facilities.

The humble Residential Housing Units (RHU), formerly known as Private Married Quarters (PMQs), have served as the on-base housing for military families since the first ones were built in the late 1940s. They are pretty basic, unpretentious homes, built to a standard design. Their design is so distinct, that if you visit any city across Canada that once had a military base, the former RHUs will stand out to anyone familiar with military housing.

All are one, one and a half, or two storey wood frame homes, originally covered with wood or cement-asbestos siding, but sometimes in brick. Some are single, detached homes; some are semi-detached; some are rowhouse-style. None have garages and some don’t have a basement, but many come with three or four bedrooms for larger families.

In recent years, bases have been adding apartment style accommodations targeted to small families and single members, a step up from living in barracks.

For decades, there has been a bit of a love-hate relationship with the RHUs. Many military members have complained about the poor maintenance of the homes. Many were built with inadequate or no insulation, and the siding and roofing were allowed to deteriorate to unacceptable levels. Appliances weren’t always upgraded when they should have been done, including old, inefficient furnaces. Those with basements would occasionally see cracks forming in their foundations, causing mold issues from water penetration.

It should be pointed out that the overseeing agency, the Canadian Forces Housing Agency (CFHA), has worked hard over the years to correct many of these issues, with new vinyl siding, insulation, roofing, high-efficiency furnaces and foundation upgrades done to RHUs at all bases.

In addition, two new, three-storey apartments were recently built at CFB Borden, Ontario, providing twelve units for service members who enjoy an apartment option (no grass cutting or snow shoveling). This, however, is after the CFHA demolished all the RHUs in the south-side “Air Force side” enclave, and around half of the RHUs in the north-side “Army side” enclave.

On the positive side, some obvious reasons to live in the RHUs include the (usually) close proximity to work and the ease of “disposing” of your former residence when you are posted to a new base.  You don’t need to worry about selling your house when you are posted to a new city; you simply pack up and go.

In the past, rents were below the market rate, which compensated for the fact that military pay rates haven’t always been great. Pay rates are higher now, but the rents on RHUs have also gone up drastically, having been adjusted to current market rates.

The RHU community also provides a sense of community for military families, a community of like-minded people that they might not find off-base.  Military life is a unique kind of life that the civilian population doesn’t always understand and sometimes it is beneficial to be around people who understand the challenges of military life. RHUs provide military families with a valuable resource to address their specific needs.  Military personnel are deployed for months at a time, leaving their spouses and children behind.  Often the community on a military base is the only source of emotional and practical support for these families.  A real sense of community develops around the RHU areas, with families regularly interacting with each other and organizing the types of community events that are often rare or non-existent in civilian communities.

For some remote postings, it was the only practical choice as off-base housing was limited, located some distance from the base or non-existent.

Most bases provide the complete social and recreational amenities that are so valuable to military families. At one time, all schooling of dependent children was done at on-base schools, but now it’s mostly just primary school grades.  The sense of community for students is also very valuable, making the transition to a new school (at a new base) easier since there was a “we’re all in the same boat” attitude among the “Base-Brats” (born, raised and trained).  The usual anxieties of attending a new school are lessened since all students would be attending a new school every 3 or 4 years. New friends would be made and old friends would be re-united.

As Canadian actor Michael J. Fox, a former Chilliwack “Base Brat”, wrote in his autobiography, “Lucky man”:  “PMQs were tidy neighbourhoods where folks quickly forged new friendships or re-established old ones.  Everybody looked out for everybody else and everybody was in the same socio-economic boat.”  

As the 1990s rolled on into the 21st Century, the financial situation for service members improved greatly, with pay rates rising and extra money earned from the rising number of UN and NATO tours, including the war in Afghanistan, allowing many service members to purchase off-base homes, thus enabling them to build the equity that was unavailable for those renting RHUs.

In many cities, housing markets have been favourable to sellers over the past two decades, thus ensuring that when a military member is posted to a new city, they would have little trouble selling their home.

The 1990s also saw both a concentrated effort to reduce the number of service members, with the implementation of the Force Reduction Plan (FRP), where Regular Force members were encouraged to leave the military with financial incentives.

So, due to many of the factors mentioned above, demand for RHUs fell to a point where the CFHA began demolishing surplus housing units at existing bases and selling off units at former bases, like in Toronto, London, Oakville, Moncton, Calgary, Vancouver and Chilliwack. The current philosophy of the CFHA appears to be that in some locations, the private sector can provide accommodations. While this may be true to a certain degree, rising inflation and market demand are making buying or renting harder for both military and civilians alike.

Despite the closure of CFB Toronto in 1996, there is still a sizable Regular Force contingent in the city, which includes the 2nd Canadian Division Headquarters, Joint Task Force Central Headquarters, 2 Military Police Regiment Headquarters and staff for the Command and Staff College.

Ottawa once had two Air Force bases, CFB Uplands and CFB Rockcliffe, both closed in the mid-1990s. However, there also is still a sizable Regular Force contingent in Ottawa too, including National Defence Headquarters. While there are still RHUs available at the Uplands site, which is still owned by the federal government, all RHUs at Rockcliffe are gone, and the property was sold to the private sector.

Additionally, every city with army, navy or air force reserve units have Regular Force members posted to those units to handle the day to day operations.

Further making the housing situation unaffordable for military members, the post-living differential, a special allowance which helps compensate members for the higher costs associated with locations such as Toronto and Vancouver, hasn’t been increased since 2009.

So, it would appear that in addition to rectifying the other deficiencies facing the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Army today, we can add increased affordable military housing to the list. If only we hadn’t neglected our military for so many decades.

On the plus side:

On the negative side:

Sources: Military members feeling bite of skyrocketing housing, living costs: defence chief | The Star, Military housing – Canada.ca.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/self-inflicted-wound-chief-of-defence-staff-admits-to-serious-shortage-of-affordable-military-housing/

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