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Meet the veterans having to make tough decisions after shocking AFRH rent increase

‘Another broken promise to a veteran.’ AFRH residents struggle to afford rate increase.

Residents of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport must decide to stay or leave after a substantial rate increase was announced in April. The increase will be phased in over three years with the first increase on Jan 1.
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Residents of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport must decide to stay or leave after a substantial rate increase was announced in April. The increase will be phased in over three years with the first increase on Jan 1.

A 97-year-old World War II-era veteran will be staying at the Armed Forces Retirement Home despite a hefty rent increase.

A veteran activist in his early 60s is already gone. Another woman met and married her husband at the home. Another 60-ish veteran is talking to bankruptcy lawyers and biding his time, hoping for a last-minute Hail Mary that will keep Armed Forces Retirement Home living affordable.

Since a rent increase of up to 106 percent was announced in April, veterans at the home have dealt with some anger, a lot of angst and uncertainty that at times seems overwhelming. Not a whole lot different than the average retiree who’s wondering if that 401(k) is built to withstands the ebbs, flows and surprises of everyday living.

Only the retirement home, in the veterans’ eyes, is part of their retirement package. Most of them served at least 20 years. Some have a service-related disability or served in a combat zone. They feel they earned a place in what is likely one of the better retirement homes around — one replete with amenities such as a view of the Mississippi Sound, a bowling alley, fitness center and in-house clinic.

Take Robert Guenther, one veteran who hasn’t made up his mind but doesn’t see how he’ll be able to stay barring some near-miracle in the halls of Congress or elsewhere. So far, Congress seems on the verge of spreading the increase over three years and moving its start date from October to January.

Before the rent increase, he had what seemed like a solid plan.

South from Alaska

Guenther sold his house and most of his possessions in Alaska and moved to South Mississippi and found a new home in the independent living towers in the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

And then, he reasoned, should his health fail and he need more care, such as assisted living or a nursing home, the AFRH would provide that and he wouldn’t be a burden on his daughter in Alaska.

“I absolutely love it here,” he said as he walked the spotless halls. “Just about anything you need, they provide.”

He also loves to cruise and he’d taken a pricey around-the-world cruise when he retired after 20 years in the Air Force and National Security Agency and 20 more with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Alaska. He did quite a bit of traveling, both in and out of the service, but those good times came with a toll — about tens of thousands of dollars in consumer debt.

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Robert Guenther, like many residents at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, is struggling to decide how to deal with the planned rate increases at the home. The current plan is to phase in the increase over a three-year period, the first increase coming on Jan. 1. Amanda McCoy amccoy@sunherald.com

Still, he had two good pensions and Social Security and the cost of living at AFRH was low, about $1,500 a month, which includes meals and a host of amenities. But then, the AFRH administration threw him a curve, a 106 percent increase in his monthly rent at the home.

The home charges on a sliding scale, but Guenther said he’ll likely have to pay full price, considering his income of about $60,000. He said the increase wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for his debt and alimony paid to an ex-wife, neither of which are taken into consideration when it comes to the AFRH.

So he’s preparing for the worst, shopping around for furniture to take with him if the rent increase goes into effect. His plan is to pay down the debt or have it wiped out by bankruptcy court. And he’s taking a hard look at spending on necessities, right down to the cost of dental floss in hopes of convincing the AFRH to lower his rent.

More than a retirement home

In the meantime, he raves about the home, the clinic, the fitness center, a swimming pool, bowling alley, walking/bicycling tracks, an upscale pool hall, a library of DVDs, movie theater, discount cable TV, a bar that’s open until 10 p.m. (11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve) and an inconspicuous vending machine that dispenses PBR and other beers 24/7.

The dining room has daily specials, a large salad bar, a grill and a diet menu.

“Some people complain about the food, but I don’t,” he said as he ate a double-cheeseburger stacked with three kinds of cheese. “I like it. I eat one of these every day for lunch.

“I really love it, but a 106 percent increase would be hard for anyone to pay.”

Mildred Sobierajski, who’ll turn 97 in October, finally, after some misgivings and a trip to Ohio, said she has it figured out and she’ll stay. She had to cash in a sizable annuity when she turned 95 and that pushed her into the upper-income bracket but, she said, the AFRH is her best option.

“I’ve got it all figured out,” she said. “The business office says it’s all right. I would like to have a few dollars. Ever since I’ve been out on my own, I’ve always had a few dollars left over. The way they have it figured now, it’ll be on them.”

Sobierajski, a World War II-era veteran who delivered top secret dispatches in Hawaii two years after Pearl Harbor, considered a home in Ohio, where she has family.

“I looked at a place in Mount Vernon, Ohio,” she said. “I’m Eastern Star, so they have some places up there. You have to furnish the room yourself. They have a nurse on duty but if you get sick, they have to take you to a hospital or clinic. It’s tempting. I’ve thought a lot about it.”

She’s still in independent living, working three hours a day at the front desk of the chapel.

“But if they’ll keep me here for what I have, for what my income is, I’ll just stay here,” Sobierajski said.

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Mildred Sobierajski, who is nearly 97 and a World War II veteran, explored moving out of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport after rate increases were announced, but decided to stay. The current plan is to phase in the increase over a three-year period, the first increase coming on Jan. 1. Amanda McCoy amccoy@sunherald.com

‘It hurt to move out’

Phil Ford is already gone. He was the chairman of the resident advisory board. He asked the tough questions. But he couldn’t make his personal finances work with the new rent. And without much searching, he found a house and a one-year lease that he couldn’t pass up.

“I’m a little biased because I love the home,” said Ford, who had been on a waiting list for two-and-a-half years and was living in the D.C. home when the call came about an opening in Gulfport. “It hurt to move out.”

Then there was the meeting in April when residents first heard about the plan to raise the rent.

“When they came out on April 9 with the announcement, the place just turned upside down,” Ford said. “It’s not great at all. The residents were pretty upset to be told the rent would go up 106 percent.

“I was absolutely dumbfounded.”

Ford advised residents in his monthly column in The Communicator to explore their options and not make any knee-jerk reactions.

Then he found the deal on the house.

“I’ll be able to pay off my debt a lot sooner than I had anticipated,” said the former “scorekeeper” in the Navy, working in supply administration. “Then I apply to reapply and move back in as soon as I’m debt-free except for my car.”

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Phil Ford moved out of the Armed Forces Retirement Home on June 21 after he found a home in Long Beach at a price he couldn’t turn down. He hopes to pay down his debts and then return to the home in the future, he said. Amanda McCoy file amccoy@sunherald.com

Claire Dimler-Smith, and her husband, Carl, the man she met, fell in love with and married at the home, will be staying. He’s several years older than her and in need of some of the extra care the home provides. His rent, she said, will go about about 10 percent. She’s in independent living, though, and faces a much larger increase.

“Granted, they take care of everything,” Dimler-Smith said, although the increase could cause her to give up her car and generally cut back on spending. “I don’t want to live where I have to count how many candy bars I can have.

“We’ve had a lifetime of sacrifice. These people are used to sacrifice. But the thing that bugs me most is when they come in, these Legion groups and veterans groups, I can’t give (them) anything this month. That’s what bugs me. We used to be generous.”

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