An assignment to the secretive test centers at Edwards Air Force Base can be the capstone of a career for many in military aviation. But facing a “decades-long, chronic” housing shortage and sky-high rents around the remote desert base in southern California, some military families there are cramming into RVs to make ends meet.

Karen Petree, whose husband is a senior chief in the Navy assigned to an F-35 test program at Edwards, spent nearly all of her first year at the base living in a camping-style trailer whose walls were so thin that they eventually had to buy three air conditioners.

Petree and her family arrived at Edwards in April 2021 believing they would only need to wait two weeks for housing. Between their assignment in Dallas, Texas and new orders for Edwards, the family planned and budgeted to take an eight day road trip and then use temporary lodging expenses for about seven days.

Right before they headed west, the bases housing told them their wait would not be two weeks. Instead, it could be up to 12 months from when you arrive, officials told the family. 

It hit us like a wall of bricks. We had no idea. We already had our stuff packed up, Petree said.

In early 2021, they purchased a large 5th-wheel RV trailer with a $70,000 loan at more than 6% interest. For the next 11 months the family of four lived in the RV parked at the bases campground known as FamCamp, including while Karen was pregnant with the couples third child. 

They learned the hard truths of living in the landscape that Edwards is famous for, the high Mojave desert. When summer temperatures reached 115 degrees, they bought a third air conditioning unit because FamCamp has no covered parking for the RVs.

Heat wasnt the only risk. The wind blows just right, you’re gonna lose power, Petree said. A solar panel kept their refrigerator running, which put them among the lucky ones living in FamCamp.

In April 2022, their name finally reached the top of the waitlist and a home on base came open. Almost immediately, they got messages from other families: can we rent your RV? Three years later, theyre still renting the RV out to families that are months away from getting their own on base housing.

Ironically, the RV hasnt left FamCamp since it was delivered there in April 2021 because of the need for affordable temp housing for families, Petree said. We rent it to save families from being homeless, but never expected to effectively be running a charity.

Petree now finds herself living as a landlord, managing new tenants and even fighting with one family who trashed the RV and had months of unpaid rent.

This RV has just been the I wanna say, gift that keeps on giving but the opposite, she said.

A Remote and Isolated installation

The second-largest base in the Air Force, Edwards is known for both a history of daredevil flying and its remote desert location.

This is the middle of the desert. There’s nothing here, Petree said. I’d never seen a tumbleweed until I went to Edwards and I was born and raised in Texas.

Around 10,000 people are assigned to Edwards and nearby Plant 42 with just under 2,400 active duty military. The base is spread across over 300,000 acres of Kern, San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties and is home to the 412th Test Wing and the Air Forces Test Pilot School. The base holds an iconic spot in the services lore. As the Cold War and space race began, the best pilots in the Air Force flew some of the most famous and most dangerous flights in history at Edwards. 

Once known as Muroc field, the base streets pay homage to test pilots who flew over the base, like Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles “Chuck” Yeager, who first broke the sound barrier in the desert skies above the base in 1947; Fitz-Gerald Blvd. for Capt. James Fitz-Gerald, the second man to fly Mach 1 and died in an Edwards crash in 1948; Wolfe Blvd. for Capt. Joseph Wolfe, who died testing the B-47 in 1951; Forbes Ave., named for Maj. Daniel Forbes, who died in 1948 flying the YB-49 flying wing. The same crash killed a second test pilot, Capt. Glen Edwards, who the base is named after.

The base has 22 runways, with 18 located on the lake beds of Rogers and Rosamond Dry Lakes, the longest of which is 7.5 miles long. NASA’s Space Shuttle would land at Edwards return from space.

Air Force photo
President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan were at Edwards Air Force Base as the Space Shuttle Columbia landed July 4, 1982. The home of Air Force flight testing for over 70 years, Edwards has 22 runways, 18 of which are on dry lake beds, the longest of which is 7.5 miles long. (Edwards History Office file photo)

But troops arriving at Edwards today are welcomed with a chronic housing shortage.

Jessica Dixon, a local realtor and military spouse said when she first moved to the nearby town of Rosamond in 2016, there may have been one or two RVs in her neighborhood. But now, there are 10 to 12 of them. 

Theres a lot more, she said. Theres one even three doors down from me which never used to be there.

According to base officials, Edwards has 741 homes on base, along with the 57-site Fam Camp RV park. The 2022 Air Force Housing Requirements and Market Analysis, or HRMA, for the base found a shortfall of 119 single family homes and 307 unaccompanied accommodations based on the total number of active duty members assigned. Department of Defense policy sets a goal at all U.S. bases to have just 10% of an installations population housed on base, with the remaining given extra pay, known as Basic Allowance for Housing or BAH, to find housing in local communities.

Its the baseline for all military installations. It makes a little sense when you are in a fixed community but unfortunately its never been modified to address remote and isolated installations like Edwards and many others, said Chase Kohler, a spokesperson for Edwards.

Edwards officials believe those numbers are far too low because of a lack of off base housing. The status quo, risk-averse, posture embedded in this HRMA disproportionally disadvantages our most junior and vulnerable military members and their families, wrote Brig Gen. Matthew Higer, then the commander of the 412th Test Wing and Edwards, in a memo responding to the 2022 HRMA. Holding Edwards to the DOD-wide 10% housing requirement, Higer wrote, underestimates the demand for and unnecessarily restricts the on-base housing options at this unique Remote and Isolated installation suffering from decades-long, chronic off-base housing shortfalls.

The base has a plan to build a 200-unit, on-base apartment complex for active duty airmen and Department of Defense civilians but is currently waiting for final construction plan approval from the Pentagon. The base has done pre-work on the site so when they receive approval, they can move directly to construction, he said.

According to Mayroad, the private contractor that runs on base housing, military families save roughly $20,000 annually living on base versus off base.

The shortage of housing, Higer said, continues to constrain the viability of Edwards AFB’s on-base community with deleterious impacts to those that live at Edwards AFB, which impacts the bases ability to have  top-quality education, child care, and other vital quality of life services. 

With the limited amount of housing, lengthy wait times to get a house on base are not unusual for new families moving to Edwards. There are 132 families currently on the waitlist and wait times vary by rank, according to Kelly Douglas, a spokesperson for Mayroad, the private housing contractor that runs base housing. 

The wait time varies from 30 days to four months, with the greatest demand for junior enlisted families, according to Edwards officials. 

Kohler said the housing office works continuously with families and individual airmen to find alternative housing options while on the waitlist.

Not immune from California housing costs 

For those who do look off-base, as Karen Petree found, prospects can be just as barren as the landscape.

Edwards Airmen are, unfortunately, not immune from the broader housing challenges currently experienced throughout the state of California, Kohler said.

Edwards officials said that as many as 6,000 new single-family homes are predicted to be built over the next five years in two of the closest towns, Lancaster and Palmdale. 

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But closest town is a relative term in the desert. Lancaster is 30 miles from base, Palmdale 36. And as new home are built in those cities, Edwards personnel will have to compete for them with legions of highly paid civilian engineers and line workers at massive aerospace plants run by Lockheed, Boeing and Northrop Grumman in Palmdale, including Lockheeds Skunk Works all legacies of the regions secretive flying history. 

Nearer the base, smaller nearby towns each have their own issues. Tehachapi, about a 45-minute commute, is relatively safe but when the roads freeze, commuters can’t get into work, Petree said. Closer to base, California City and Mojave both have high crime areas and lack a big grocery store. National news outlets have reported on bodies discovered in deserts near Edwards Air Force Base from Mexican cartel-related murders.

What we were told when we arrived is this area is known for human trafficking, Petree said. That was what we were greeted with human trafficking and drugs. And now having lived there, yes, there are definitely areas that have that issue, both of those issues.

Though crime is scary, the real threat to most service members at Edwards is Californias housing market. Rental prices in the area average $3,000 a month, which Dixon said is in part due to the limited options. BAH at Edwards, like at all military bases, varies by rank. Junior enlisted members with families are paid a little over $2,300 a month to find off-base housing, while senior enlisted troops and young officers get closer to $3,000. More experienced officers top out just above $3,500 (for all ranks, members without dependants are paid 10 to 25 percent less).

A lot of it was based around when the pandemic hit, there was a moratorium put out and landlords dropped their rentals like hot cakes, Dixon said about the states pandemic policy which allowed for delayed rental payments. That was a big part of the beginning of the pandemic where we were selling off landlords rentals because they didnt want to be responsible if the tenant wasnt paying.

With few affordable places to rent, military families have to dive into the market as homebuyers.

When they realize how much a rental costs theyre like, Well, well look at purchasing and see if that makes sense. And then the big thing is will we be able to break even if we rented this out in a couple of years?, Dixon said. It has to make sense to take and buy because theyre probably not going to [produce] cash flow but at least break even with the house.

Many of her clients end up choosing Rosamond or California City because they can build new for the same price of buying a house in places like Lancaster. 

Lancaster has more shopping and amenities and homebuyers can find a 1,200 to 1,300 square foot house that was built in the 1970s. In Rosamond, California, buyers can find a slightly larger house built in the 1990s. California City has new homes for around $350,000, Dixon said, but no grocery store.

Dixon had one recent client who was an officer with a Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, of $3,300 looking for a house worth around $440,000.

The BAH is not a reasonable amount for todays mortgage and rental rates, Dixon said.

Many young enlisted troops assigned to Edwards also turn to house hacking by renting out single rooms in houses, she said.

RV Life

With no good options to rent or buy, Petree said her family decided to wait out the waitlist in the RV which added to the stress of her very complicated pregnancy. On one call, the ambulance couldn’t find their home because the roads were terrible and the RVs werent labeled properly.

Eventually the RVs were labeled with reflective paint and the base has since announced road upgrades, which Petree believes are really just regular maintenance.

At one point the price for a spot at Fam Camp was lowered to $750 a month during the pandemic. Now the price has shot up to $950 per month.

Officials at the base approved the price increase which Kohler said was the first increase in five years. The increase will be implemented after pad and road improvement projects finish in April. 

They’re repaving the spots so now the ambulance will be able to get in and that’s wonderful, but that’s not an upgrade, Petree said. It’s not new facilities. It’s not new washers and dryers. It’s fixing the existing washer and dryer that’s been broken for forever and repaving the street that has had potholes in it forever.

Air Force photo
The Petree family lived for 11 months in an RV trailer on Edwards Air Force Base as they waited for base housing. Their family grew from four to five during the year.

In 2022, the base added 22 more spots to Fam Camp along with five tent sites. But in 2023, to ensure the longevity of the Fam Camp, the base began replacing nearby roads and limited capacity to 34 spots, according to Edwards officials. Of those, 23 are being utilized by active-duty airmen, five by retirees, four by Department of Defense civilians, one by a base contractor and another by the camps host.

They’re acting like a corporation instead of a military base, Petree said. Nobody will stand up to them because everybody’s so scared of being homeless out there that they just buckle up and just do whatever they’ve got to do.

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