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Civilians filling some Navy housing vacancies

Feb. 13, 2013 - 09:30AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 13, 2013 - 09:30AM  |  
About 800 civilian renters live in the approximately 40,000 privatized Navy housing units, according to Navy Installations Command.
About 800 civilian renters live in the approximately 40,000 privatized Navy housing units, according to Navy Installations Command. (Navy)
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Military housing managers near Naval Station Mayport, Fla., are trying to fill empty apartments with civilian renters, and it's rankled some active-duty residents there.

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Military housing managers near Naval Station Mayport, Fla., are trying to fill empty apartments with civilian renters, and it's rankled some active-duty residents there.

Isn't military housing for troops and their families only? It turns out, no. While service members get top priority, civilians are more than welcome to move in next door — even if it's on federal property and behind a gate.

Concerned residents in the Mayport area contacted First Coast News, a local TV station owned by Gannett Co., which also owns Navy Times, to inquire if the managers of the Balfour Beatty community had a right to bring in residents with zero ties to the military. Balfour had posted a Craigslist advertisement offering a Feb. 1 move-in date and a $920 monthly rent.

Although rare, it is completely above board to recruit civilians for filling military housing, said Corky Vazquez, head of housing for Navy Installations Command, in an interview with Navy Times. In all, there are approximately 800 civilians living in the 40,000 privatized Navy apartments, condos, single-family homes and other units in the continental U.S., Vazquez said.

The practice has been going on for about seven years across the military, as privatized housing took a firmer share of the market. It allows these companies to keep their homes full and have the necessary capital for road repairs and amenities such as landscaping and playgrounds, Vazquez said.

Civilian occupants are more common at bases that have had sudden shifts in personnel numbers, either because of base realignment, changes in end strength, changes in home ports or decommissioning of ships.

"It's safe to say [at] locations where the Navy is getting smaller, there is a greater likelihood," he said.

This has been the case at Mayport, which has seen its population plummet. In the 1980s, it was home to two carriers, 28 combatants and 30,000 billets. But its numbers have dropped, and since 2000, it has gained only one destroyer, the Farragut, in 2006. A year later, it lost the carrier John F. Kennedy. About 5,000 billets remain.

The Balfour community is about a mile off base, according to the TV report.

But civilians also live on base. Mayport's commanding officer, Capt. Douglas Cochrane, said there are two civilian families living in two of Mayport's 500 homes.

He understands why base life might appeal to civilians.

"At least in my neighborhood, and the ones I go jogging through, the people who live in base housing really like it. We are a gated community, so there's basically zero crime. I just think it's a terrific place," he said.

Cochrane told Navy Times the media attention Mayport has received over the issue has been a positive.

"It was kind of a big education piece with everybody," he said. "Military families are always our first priorities, and active-duty military families have a number of exclusive benefits that don't apply to anybody else."

Civilians don't receive access to any base locales that also require a military ID — places like the commissary and the exchange. They also are ineligible for morale, welfare and recreation-funded programs. But they do have access to fast-food restaurants and other businesses on base.

It's also tougher to land a place. Active-duty sailors get the first shot, followed by members of other services, federal employees, civil servants, reserve officers, reserve enlisted, retirees and then, last, "unaffiliated civilians" such as the two households at Mayport.

Civilians, unlike service members, also have to pay a security deposit, pet deposits and for services such as trash pickup, Vazquez said.

Before a civilian can even apply for a place, the unit has to sit empty for 30 days. Then the applicants are subjected to a background check before they can sign a lease.

Civilians living on base can mostly be found in areas with a dwindling Navy presence. For example, Earle, N.J., home to a weapons station; Crane, Ind., a Naval Surface Warfare Center outpost; or Ingleside, Texas, a shipyard closed because of base realignment.

In Ingleside, uniformed personnel moved out but the housing company still had a contract with the Navy, which allowed civilians to move into all of the approximately 125 units there.

First Coast News interviewed Balfour resident Nicole Sizemore, who has lived in the development for two years. She said that some people believe sailors deserve their own housing and should be surrounded by fellow service members.

But she didn't have a problem with it.

"People need a place to live. It's a house," said Sizemore, a former sailor and Navy spouse.

And though Mayport may be a nice place for civilians, Cochrane added there may be fewer houses for them in the future. Cochrane is waiting for the arrival of 2,100 sailors in the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group and, eventually, littoral combat ships. And with those newcomers, there will be a demand for Navy housing that will leave few, if any, units available to civilians.

"I'll tell you what, you'll see some explosive growth at Mayport," he said. "I absolutely anticipate an increased demand from our active-duty sailors, no doubt."

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