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Ft. Drum in northern New York state is growing fast. Six thousand soldiers have been transferred to the 10th Mountain Division, which is based there. As North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports, those new soldiers and their families are creating a housing crunch in the area around the base.
DAVID SOMMERSTEIN reporting:
Clark Hall is like the Grand Central Station of Ft. Drum, where arriving and departing troops deal with all kinds of paperwork.
Ms. RANDA ORTLIEB: This is a happening place.
SOMMERSTEIN: Randa Ortlieb dodges soldiers on her way to her daily housing briefing. She's in charge of finding military families a place to live. She points out the men and women in desert camo are just back from Iraq. The ones in green fatigues are the newbies.
Sergeant MICHAEL NORWOOD: How you doing?
Ms. ORTLIEB: Good. How are you?
SOMMERSTEIN: Sergeant Michael Norwood stands with two young privates who stare at the floor. He tells Ortlieb they're both single, so they'll live in the barracks, and they leave. Ortlieb says the barracks may not be pleasant, but the real problem is for soldiers with families who need a place of their own.
Ms. ORTLIEB: You know, they're trying to figure out what's the best thing to do. Should I leave my family here? Should I send them home until I get government quarters? Do I want to buy a house?
SOMMERSTEIN: Every available housing unit is occupied at Ft. Drum. Nine hundred more families are expected by next spring, and the waiting list for homes or apartments numbers in the hundreds. The frustration among the rank and file is plentiful. Private Michael Toggero(ph) is number 360 on the list.
Private MICHAEL TOGGERO: People are like sharks out here for housing. I mean, if you don't have the rank then you're really not going to get anything; you're just down below at the list, just--and you just wait there the full--until they decide to come fish you out and give you a house or whatever.
SOMMERSTEIN: Soldiers are looking far beyond Ft. Drum's gates for places to live. A hundred fifty of them are commuting 85 miles from Syracuse. But in the more immediate area, northern New York's dairy country, there's been little incentive to improve aged housing stock for decades, and now the community is scrambling to catch up. State and local officials gathered in nearby Watertown this summer to announce the renovation of an abandoned housing project. The event was bittersweet, sweet because the rusty industrial city is being reborn as a military town; new stores and restaurants and hotels are popping up every day. Mayor Jeff Graham says the money is finally here to rebuild.
Mayor JEFF GRAHAM (Watertown, New York): You know, it used to be you could buy a really nice house in Watertown for, say, 80,000. You could never build for that price. So now with prices for existing homes up in the six figures, it now makes sense for people to build new homes in some cases.
SOMMERSTEIN: The bitter part is that developers can't build fast enough. Rents are going up, pushing out some non-military residents.
Ms. BRENDA INGRAHAM(ph): My name's Brenda Ingraham. I have been homeless now for better than three months.
SOMMERSTEIN: Ingraham's been sleeping on an air mattress in her boyfriend's brother's apartment. She finally found a rental in her hometown of Gouverneur, 30 miles from Ft. Drum. She says she can't compete with what military personnel can pay. They have a minimum housing allowance of $700 a month.
Ms. INGRAHAM: I've been all over, and it's been really difficult. A lot of the places in Gouverneur want military. You call the landlord up and they'll be like, `Are you military?' You'll say no, and, `Well, we're not going to rent to you, then.'
SOMMERSTEIN: Local officials say they're doing all they can until the housing market grows. But Ft. Drum's commander has warned things could get worse before they get better. Nearly all of the base's troops will spend time in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next year and a half. The real crunch will be when they all come home. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in Canton, New York.
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