Lawmakers recently passed an amendment to the Service Members Civil Relief Act, or SCRA, allowing Soldiers to terminate an auto or housing lease agreement without a 30-day notice due to a Defense Department stop-move order.
Changes to the SCRA are retroactive, giving families an opportunity to request reimbursement for rental payments accrued during the previous stop-move order, said Melissa Halsey, legal assistance policy division chief for the Army’s Office of the Judge Advocate General.
The recent impact of COVID-19 abruptly halted DOD movements from March until June, forcing permanent change-of-station orders to be placed on hold or canceled. Having secured new housing before a PCS, some Soldiers may have been inadvertently locked into multiple lease agreements, she added.
During normal conditions, personnel need to provide the 30-day notice — or an additional month’s rent — to end their lease with deployment orders that exceed 90 days or for a PCS move, Halsey said.
With no immediate provisions under the SCRA during the recent stop movement, Army legal officials encouraged Soldiers and families to reach out to their property managers to resolve a leasing dispute. If Soldiers failed to fix the issue, they could then work with a legal assistance attorney, all while maintaining both rental agreements until resolved, Halsey said.
“Congress recognized that some service members had difficulty using the SCRA during the COVID-19 outbreak,” she said. “The amendment to the SCRA will help address that problem.”
Soldiers who chose to pay additional rent during the previous stop-move order can try to recoup those costs.
For example, an Army family could have been scheduled to PCS to their next assignment by April 1, Halsey said. In preparation for their big move, the family secured a rental property in February near their new installation. But when the stop-move order went into effect in March, their PCS move was canceled.
After receiving legal guidance, the family may have tried to work with the new landlord to cancel or delay the lease, but their request was denied, she said.
Worried about the effect a contested debt may have on his career, the Soldier may have decided to pay for both properties until they ultimately were able to move later in the year, Halsey added. Under the new amendment, the Soldier could request that the landlord repay the rent for the home that went unoccupied due to the stop-move order.
Alternatively, if the Soldier chose not to pay for the home he was unable to occupy during the stop-move order, a landlord may be seeking restitution for the unpaid amounts. The SCRA change makes it clear that property managers can’t recoup those unpaid amounts.
Practically speaking, she added, Soldiers should be aware that it might be difficult for some property owners to comply with the new SCRA change and pay back an Army family, given the financial stress many are facing due to COVID-19.
Individuals should contact an Army legal representative to find out more information, Halsey said. Personnel currently facing a lawsuit or collections resulting from unpaid housing amounts during the stop movement should also contact their legal office for support.
“The SCRA is designed to help Soldiers proactively,” Halsey said. “It is there to ensure service members aren’t at a disadvantage when subject to the strict requirements of military life.”