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Housing crunched

Incoming soldiers won't bolster local market, as many new arrivals are in no position to buy

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Take close to 6,000 soldiers — many with families — and make them move to Colorado Springs. Add a federal program meant to help troops with reassigned units sell their homes, and sprinkle in some hope that the local housing market has bottomed out.

There, you have the makings for a healthy local housing boom, save for one crucial thing: Many soldiers who could be house-shopping see little chance of selling their homes elsewhere, with or without federal help.

"We're going to rent," Sgt. 1st Class Robert Rushworth said in June before making the move from Fort Hood to Colorado Springs.

Rushworth and his wife have seven kids, and they bought a home in 2007 with the expectation of staying in Killeen, Texas. But with his unit moving and the bleak prospect of selling his home, he can't see doing the same thing here.

"I don't think I can afford two mortgages," he said, adding that if there was a federal program meant to help him, he hadn't heard of it.

Skittish soldiers

Rushworth is one of several soldiers moving from Fort Hood who spoke to the Independent about having bought homes in a strong market, only to be burned a couple years later by dropping values and a shortage of potential buyers.

LJ Stevens, owner of Eagle Realty in Fountain, remembers hearing that Fort Carson growth would be a huge boon to the housing market in his area. But the reality he sees now is humdrum, with would-be buyers facing a tough time getting a loan and a tougher time off-loading their old houses.

"'Slow' would be a good word," he says.

The main growth at Fort Carson this summer is coming with the arrival of Fort Hood's 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team and its headquarters division. That accounts for most of the oft-cited 6,000-soldier figure.

But the reality is that fewer than 2,000 are coming from Fort Hood. Others will trickle in more slowly as they are reassigned from other posts across the country. Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments estimates that total arrivals this summer will be actually be a more modest 3,000 to 3,500 soldiers.

And their arrival might not even be that noticeable, considering that a 3,500-soldier brigade just deployed for Afghanistan.

The newcomers are acting differently from years past, according to an staffer at Fort Carson's housing office, who asked that his name not be printed.

"With the way the economy is, soldiers are having a hard time buying their house," the staffer says, adding that he'd guess the percentage of arriving soldiers looking to purchase their own home is less than half what it was in recent years.

Ken Greene, an apartment broker with Apartment Realty Advisors, says that while in Texas to meet with relocating soldiers, he heard many who already owned homes say they'd rent in Colorado Springs rather than buy. Some are actually upside-down on their current home loans, meaning that they owe more than they can generate from selling in this market.

There's a federal program meant to help military families in that situation, Greene notes, but "nobody knows what the rules are."

Battling the system

The Homeowners Assistance Program, under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was devised in the 1960s to help soldiers sell homes when military developments affect a local housing market. The federal stimulus package this year broadened the program to help service members hit by a nationwide housing slump, but eligibility rules are still in flux.

Needless to say, soldiers moving from Killeen to Colorado Springs are not banking on it, if they've heard of it at all.

Even for those who know about the program, figuring out application procedures is daunting. Online forms say they are still in "draft" version, but instructions say to use them anyway. The program's Fort Worth office serves Colorado, Texas and 13 other states, but a message at the office refers callers back to the Web site, noting that "final guidance" is due in late July.

Don Chapman, assistant manager for the program, says from Washington, D.C., that the plan now is to help those whose home values have declined at least 10 percent; the government will offer sellers 90 percent of their purchase price to help defray major losses.

But a sticking point for many is that the program will only help those who bought their homes before June 2006. Maj. Steve Adams and Capt. Angel Vega, two more soldiers moving up from Fort Hood to Colorado Springs, both bought homes in 2007, meaning they, like Rushworth, are not now eligible for the assistance program.

Chapman has simple advice for Adams, Vega, Rushworth and service members like them, if they are getting pinched: "Write your congressman."

lane@csindy.com

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