For generations of veterans, getting help achieving the American dream of homeownership was a built-in benefit of military service. After World War II, GI Bills began providing educational and housing subsidies to veterans and their families; and government-backed Veterans’ Assistance loans (mostly to white vets) helped them easily secure mortgages. As a result, today, even as a housing crisis wracks the country—and as an estimated 40,000 homeless veterans go unsheltered each night—veterans are more likely to own their home than civilians.
But zoom in, and you’ll find that the advantage breaks down by war. According to a new report from Apartment List, veterans who served post-9/11 are actually more likely to struggle to afford housing—far more than any group of veterans before them, and even a little more than the average non-vet American citizen. Nearly 35 percent of them are cost-burdened (meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing) and fewer than half of them own their own homes.
“When you look at the landscape in the way we support our veterans in the housing market, most of it happens on the margins of homelessness, or on the margin of homeownership,” Igor Popov, the author of the report, told CityLab. What this report reveals, he says, is that especially for post-9/11 veterans, focusing on those margins has left out an increasingly unstable middle.
Part of the variance in housing outlook could be explained away by changing demographics, Popov says: Veterans today are younger, and younger people are renting more than they’re buying. They’re also the most diverse cohort in history, meaning they’re more likely to be shut out of the housing market and saddled with intergenerational poverty.
“Underrepresented minorities have unique challenges they face in the housing market,” Popov said. “Whether through implicit discrimination or other things, like the long-lasting effects on neighborhoods of residential segregation.” These are issues that veterans’ assistance policies weren’t initially designed to address—and in some cases, issues that they exacerbated. Today, though African-American and Hispanic veterans only account for around 15 percent of the total U.S. veteran population, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, they account for 45 percent of all homeless ones.
These younger and more diverse demographics do likely account for the homeownership gap, Popov says, but not all of the variance in cost burden. When comparing veterans’ ability to afford housing compared to a civilian cohort of exactly the same age, race, and gender, post-9/11 veterans’ handicap is staggering: While Vietnam veterans are 10 percent more likely to afford their housing costs than their civilian peers, and Gulf War veterans are a full 25 percent more likely, post-9/11 vets are actually 5 percent less likely to be able to afford their housing costs.
“The veterans returning from war today are part of the first generation to not enjoy a housing affordability advantage,” Popov writes.
So what happened? It’s not that post-9/11 vets earn less than other civilians, even as they have to beat them out for the same housing supply, as Popov initially thought. On average, households with post-9/11 veterans actually earn 9 percent more than non-veteran households. It’s not that veterans are supporting larger households: Family sizes are around the same from generation-to-generation. And it’s not just that post-9/11 veterans are trying to live in pricier cities. Wherever they live, veterans are struggling more.
Part of the problem stems from the housing crash of 2008—around the time that many post-9/11 veterans were returning from or deploying to war. Veterans Assistance loans gave veterans favorable credit terms, but in that era’s environment of super-cheap credit, they had less of a premium. “It wasn’t as big of a relative benefit,” said Popov, especially when “everyone was competing for the same housing stock.” In the years after, veterans, especially ones with PTSD, have been disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic, which can put them down the path towards homelessness and housing instability. For-profit colleges targeted them, leaving thousands saddled with loan debt. All that is compounded by the fact that nationwide, there’s an extreme lack of affordable housing in every metropolitan area. “Getting employment that is at a livable wage when housing costs are so high makes everything harder,” says Randy Brown, a spokesperson for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
But it could also be that, while the GI Bill and related benefits worked well for some (for a while), veterans of the post-9/11 era aren’t getting the right targeted assistance. “VA home loans are great if you have the money to pay for a mortgage,” says Brown. HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) assistance is great for homeless veterans struggling with mental health issues or disabilities. For veterans at risk of eviction or of falling into homelessness, the biggest benefit is the Supportive Services for Veterans program, which provides temporary financial assistance to those in financial emergencies. “But in between those extremes,” Brown says, “it’s a tough market for affordable housing.”
Even recent proposed updates have backfired. Last year, Donald Trump signed a new Forever GI Bill, which expanded benefits for veterans and their families. But the Department of Veteran Affairs’ IT system wasn’t updated to calculate the new stipends, NBC news reported last month, resulting in missed, incorrect, or late payments to veterans who depend on those stipends for a roof over their heads. This week, NBC found that as of November 8, the glitches had left “more than 82,000 [veterans] … still waiting for their housing payments,” and that hundreds of thousands total were affected.
“A lot of the ways in which we support our veterans date back to policies that were implemented decades ago,” Popov said. “Clearly, the 20th century tactics being enacted are no longer viable when for solving the problems of 21st century veterans.”