July 1, 2017

About that Congressional Housing Allowance

Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz was the Chair of the House Oversight Committee, until he quit in the middle of his term.

Chaffetz, you'll recall, was the one who promised to investigate the daylights out of Hillary Clinton if she became president.
It's a target-rich environment. Even before we get to Day One, we've got two years' worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain't good.
Clinton having lost, and Chaffetz having to now investigate a GOP-controlled White House, it's not really all that much of a surprise that he's leaving. It is a little surprising that, in an interview with The Hill shortly before he quit, Chaffetz noted that he might have left office even if Clinton, had been elected.
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
I vowed that I would get in, serve and get out, and at some point you have to say, 'Let's get off this crazy train and get a better balance in your life.' It's hard to say, but I think I'd still probably come to the same conclusion.
On his way out, he talked about  gridlock in DC, and his future plans, which seem consistent with the standard path taken by other political graduates - seeking board seats, writing a book, and of course, not confirming the rumors that he's going to become a contributor on cable news; he's going to Fox, of course.

He also noted that he sleeps in his office, as do many of his colleagues, because it's expensive to live in DC.
Washington DC is one of the most expensive places in the world, and I flat out cannot afford a mortgage in Utah, kids in college, and a second place here in DC. I think a $2500 housing allowance (note:per month, or $30K annually) would be appropriate and a real help to have at least a decent quality of life in Washington if you're going to expect people to spend hundreds of nights a year here... There are dozens upon dozens of members living in their offices, and I don't know how healthy that is in the long term.
The article goes on to note
While Chaffetz said $174,000 a year is a "handsome" congressional salary, he explained that subsidizing lawmakers' housing costs in the pricey DC metro area could actually save taxpayer dollars. If he had a proper home in Washington rather than a cot in his office, Chaffetz said, he wouldn't need to fly home every weekend on the taxpayer's dime, and his wife, Julie, could visit more often. 
Chaffetz has a point; we can't really expect our elected officials to do a good job if they have to sleep in their offices, or in someone's basement. I doubt I'd be effective under those circumstances. And, of course, who can complain about wasting taxpayer money?

But - rather than giving them more money, with no guarantee that they're stop living in their offices or stop flying home every weekend, what if we took the $16,000,000 bucks the housing allowance would cost annually (535 x $30K), and instead invest that in available properties in DC?

You know, actually build housing in neighborhoods that are currently in need of help, or rehab existing housing units, and have the congressmen live there?  We don't need anything extravagant - nice two-bedroom apartments, maybe 1200 - 1400 square feet or so, where they can bring their families once a month. A combination of housing types -- single family, duplexes and triplexes, even right-sized 8 or 10 family units could be put up.

There are plenty of available properties -- here's a list of some 160 of them from December 2016 put out by the Property Acquisition and Disposition Division (PADD) of the DC Housing and Community Development agency.

You'll notice that properties are available all over the city; many of them appear to be clustered together, so there could be concentrated bursts of neighborhood development and improvement, and the congressmen could really establish a sense of community pride with the other residents.

To do it right, we'd want the properties added to the tax rolls, so that DC gets a much-needed economic boost. I'm sure Congress can figure out a way to make that work, since they pretty much control what happens in DC.

DC residents would have jobs; infrastructure would be improved; neighborhoods would be reborn; more people would feel comfortable living in the neighborhoods; schools would improve; food deserts would disappear; medical facilities could be built; neighborhood police stations could be built, improving relations between the good guys and the people they serve; politicians get to know and understand the people they serve.and the real life challenges they face...

The list of benefits is almost endless, and they play right into the desires of both parties. And imagine if we could encourage bipartisan neighborhoods?  Wouldn't that be something?

Conservative politicians always suggest that throwing more money at something is not the right approach to take, and that handouts are bad. For example, according to this article on Salon, Chaffetz himself has a history of being conservative when it comes to housing money - for the poor, anyway.
In 2011, Chaffetz touted legislation to kill the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a pool of money by mortgage financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to provide housing relief for low-income Americans. 
With Fannie and Freddie under federal government conservatorship and losing billions of dollars a quarter there is no need to have an additional requirement on them to send a portion of their revenue to special interest groups at the expense of American taxpayers, reads a 2011 press release from Chaffetz's office.
So, let's take a page out of his book, and do something constructive with our money, instead of just handing it over to Congress, that most special of special interest groups.

Maybe this is something that Chaffetz can champion once he gets some of those board seats he's after?