More than 1,300 young, single soldiers, sailors and other service members drive to Fort Meade every work day because they don't live on post — can't, actually, because the barracks are full and other homes there are for families.
The Army installation isn't about to get millions of dollars to build more housing, not with the defense budget falling. Instead, it's getting the Army's first privately developed garden apartments for the unmarried junior-enlisted crowd, with costs covered by the developer.
"We've got to be innovative," said Col. Edward C. Rothstein, the garrison commander at Fort Meade.
Picerne Military Housing, which manages the family housing on post, is paying for construction and maintenance of the $72 million, 816-bed complex in exchange for the future residents' monthly housing allowances.
At the groundbreaking in mid-February, Assistant Secretary of the Army Katherine Hammack said this sort of partnership is increasingly important in times of tighter budgets. The military has been privatizing family housing for just over a decade, but privately developed apartments for unmarried service members — junior or senior — are a newer concept.
"It's something that we're evaluating at many of our bases," said Hammack, who oversees installations, energy and the environment for the Army.
Don't expect to see them everywhere, though.
Budget cuts — either the across-the-board reductions that began kicking in March 1 or whatever replaces them, if Congress cuts another deal — will put pressure on installations to shrink. Hammack said the Army doesn't want to sign up developers to build apartments on posts where there might not be enough soldiers to use them in the not-too-distant future.
Fort Meade strikes the Army and Picerne as a logical starting place because the Anne Arundel County installation has expanded in a big way in recent years, adding high-priority missions such as the security-focused U.S. Cyber Command.
Base commanders have heard a growing number of soldiers complain that they can't live a convenient distance away because local rents are too high for their housing allowance, which ranges from $1,380 to $1,584 for the ranks eligible to move into the new apartments.
Fort Meade officials also want to cut back on traffic flowing into the post, which jumped after thousands of jobs were transferred there in the national base realignment effort that concluded in 2011.
And Rothstein said service members living on post have the advantage of Army facilities close by. The apartments are being built next to the commissary and within walking distance of a gymnasium and USO facility.
"It's not just about being close to work and saving a dollar," the garrison commander said. "It's about the opportunity for the amenities and to be part of the installation."
Service members fresh out of the barracks might not want to spend quite so much time on post, of course, but the developer said he has no concerns about demand for his apartments.
John Picerne, CEO of Corvias Group, the parent of Picerne Military Housing, said the company's 5-year-old apartment complex at Fort Bragg in North Carolina for single or unaccompanied officers, warrant officers and senior noncommissioned officers is 98 percent occupied.
"The response has been overwhelming," Picerne said. Soldiers with housing allowances "don't want to live 30 minutes away from their job."
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on defense issues, figures a lot of civilians would appreciate it if their employer had housing on site. He sees no downside to the military getting a private developer to shoulder the costs.
But he said housing allowances — whether paid to Picerne or a complex in the private market — are probably an item the armed forces should think about reducing or freezing as officials scramble to pay for multiple priorities amid tight budgets.
"These kinds of noncash compensations are fairly generous, and in an era of sequestration, we need to rethink some of them," O'Hanlon said.
Picerne will charge $1,296 a month for service members renting one bedroom of the two-bedroom Fort Meade apartments, with cable, Internet and other utilities included.