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Rising rent, moves, childcare: 'Got Your 6' Summit in San Antonio faces challenges of military life

From left to right: San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Brig. Gen. Russell Driggers (Commander of 502d Air Base Wing), and TPR's military reporter Carson Frame
Photo by Danielle Pearce for the Bob Woodruff Foundation
From left to right: San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Brig. Gen. Russell Driggers (Commander of 502d Air Base Wing), and TPR's military reporter Carson Frame

More than 300 public, private, and nonprofit sector leaders gathered in San Antonio on Tuesday to learn about the complex challenges facing service members and veterans — and brainstorm solutions.

The “Got Your 6” Summit was put on by the Bob Woodruff Foundation with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

Much of the discussion centered around unmet needs highlighted in a 2022 report by the Center for a New American Security and the United Way of Bexar County. The report takes a holistic look at the lives of the military community in Greater San Antonio, including military personnel, veterans, and their families. In a yearlong study, the authors explored five life domains: health, housing, financial stability, education, and social support.

Bexar County is now home to an estimated 159,000 veterans and more than 80,000 active-duty military service members. According to CNAS, veterans comprise 11% of the total population; including the active-duty population, 16.7% of the total population is either currently serving or has previously served in the military.

Over the past decade, San Antonio’s population has grown significantly as a result of its employment opportunities and a moderate cost of living.

The availability of housing has gone down as demand has gone up, a crunch which is affecting service members, veterans, and civilians alike.

Health care resources aren’t keeping up either, meaning certain specialists and types of medical treatment require long waits or commutes. At the same time, childcare providers are in short supply, which makes it harder for military spouses to obtain and keep employment.

Stress on families

Those factors put unique stress on military-affiliated families — and the trickle-down effects are measurable. Much of what’s happening in San Antonio is also occurring nationally.

“Recent surveys show nearly 25% of enlisted families nationally are experiencing food insecurity, and it’s getting worse,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, president and CEO of the advocacy group Blue Star Families. She added that families of color were disproportionately impacted.

“What we learned through our data was that most of our families don't even have $500 in their bank accounts for emergency savings,” said Delia Johnson, vice president of operations at Military Family Advisory Network.

Regular moves contribute to that financial stress as well. Plus, the military’s basic housing allowance often lags behind local rent levels. According to a recent Blue Star Families poll, families were paying an average of $340 out of pocket for rent each month.

“When you're serving in the military, you move on government orders,” Roth-Douquet explained. “Disobeying those orders would put you in jail. So wherever the government needs to move you, you need to go. We were able to do a pulse poll this past fall of people who moved with military orders in the last 12 months. They paid an average of $8,000 out of pocket above what was reimbursed. $2,000 more in temporary housing because it took a long time to find housing — much longer than the military allows.”

Though supportive resources for military-affiliated families exist, they’re sometimes hard to navigate. That’s especially true in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which reduced in-person interaction.

“There's a plethora of resources out there and available,” Johnson said. “But we've heard through our data from our families that they sometimes struggle with getting connected to those resources because there is still stigma and fear of reaching out for help. So the more all of us can help educate the community and each other about our own superpowers, the superpowers of our colleagues, so we can encourage that help-seeking behavior, I think we're going to see that needle move.”

Local government response

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Brig. Gen. Russell Driggers, commander of the 502nd Air Base Wing and Joint Base San Antonio, explored ways to centralize and strengthen military and veteran services locally.

Nirenberg acknowledged that creating a clearinghouse of such resources is difficult.

“It is a challenge. I’ll be frank about that,” he said. “But what we've done here in San Antonio is try to consolidate this array of services through a couple of components.”

The city’s Veterans Affairs Commission, Nirenberg explained, works with different service organizations and the community to recruit perspectives from military-connected people about the assistance they need. The mayor also pointed to the city’s website and the Military Transformation Task Force, which looks at the military affairs landscape in an attempt to better support the missions at JBSA.

Driggers pointed to a bevy of programs on base and at the Air Force level, such as Five and Thrive and the the JBSA Workforce and Transition Alliance.

With respect to housing affordability challenges, both the mayor and Driggers presented ideas.

“The Defense Department did institute a basic allowance for housing increase, effective this year, of about 12.1%,” Driggers said. “So there is a broad recognition of the rising cost in housing. Our Military Family Readiness Center is a place for folks to be able to get access to information about housing — and the American Veterans Assistance Group is a charitable group that has provided some help with that as well.”

Driggers explained that JBSA leadership has a role in educating local real estate developers about the demographics of the installation in order to encourage the construction of affordable housing.

“So then they can adjust their development plans for the type of housing that they could put up. Because you don't want to put four bedroom townhomes in a place where you're going to have predominantly young, enlisted newlyweds starting their families,” Driggers said.

Long term plans

Nirenberg pointed to the city’s 10 year strategic plan to increase affordable housing and minimize the tax burden on military and veteran families.

On the childcare and healthcare fronts, Nirenberg and Driggers agreed that locally supported job placement and training programs like Ready to Work could help fill in-demand positions.

“We can target those training fields to make sure that we're filling the needs of employers in the community and thereby also ensuring that families have livable wages to support and sustain them,” Nirenberg said.

San Antonio is also a training ground for a variety of healthcare professions through its university and hospital systems, including Brooke Army Medical Center. Nirenberg and Driggers discussed incentives to keep those newly-minted providers local.

Anne Marie Dougherty, CEO of the Woodruff Foundation, applauded the San Antonio area’s emphasis on supporting military families.

“We want to learn from you all so that we can go to other places all across the country and share San Antonio's best practices and innovative solutions with others who are working on the same issues.”

The Military Desk at Texas Public Radio is made possible in part by North Park Lincoln and Rise Recovery.

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.