University Housing Agreement of Rep.  Katie Porter attracts scrutiny

University Housing Agreement of Rep. Katie Porter attracts scrutiny

WASHINGTON (AP) – In Orange County, Calif., where the typical home sells for $1 million, Representative Katie Porter’s four-bedroom, three-bathroom residence in a leafy subdivision on the University of California Irvine campus is a bargain. .

The progressive Democrat and law professor, who bemoaned the cost of housing in her district, bought it in 2011 for $523,000, a below-market price guaranteed through a program the university uses to attract academics who otherwise way, they could not afford to live in the neighborhood. affluent area. The only eligibility requirement was that she continue to work for the school.

For Porter, that version of subsidized housing outlasted her classroom time, stretching for nearly four years after she took unpaid leave from her $258,000-a-year teaching job to serve in the US House of Representatives. .

But the ties run deeper, with at least one law school administrator, who was also a donor to her campaign, helping to secure extensions of her term while she remained in Congress, according to emails from the university obtained by the Associated Press. .

That allowed Porter, a rising Democratic star and fundraising powerhouse whose net worth is valued at up to $2 million, to keep his home even if his return to school remained in doubt.

Porter’s housing situation does not violate US House ethics rules. But that runs counter to the profile she sought to cultivate in Washington as a fervent critique of a political system that allows “the rich and well-connected” to “live in one reality while the rest of us live in another,” as she wrote. in an online 2020 fundraising application.

It also coincides with a growth in interest in the school’s housing program, which has resulted in a waiting list of more than 250 academics and school administrators as housing shortages across the country drive home prices out of development. on campus skyrocket, university show numbers 2021.

Whether voter care will be tested in November, when Porter, who has amassed a $19.8 million campaign fund, seeks a third term for the once-reliable Republican district that has become more competitive in recent years.

“It sounds like the kind of internal agreement that really makes people angry in Congress,” said Bradley A. Smith, a professor at Capital University School of Law in Columbus, Ohio, and a former Republican member of the Federal Election Commission appointed by Bill Clinton.

In an interview, Porter declined to say whether his housing arrangement was appropriate. But she said she “followed applicable (University of California) policies, as well as all applicable state and federal laws.”

“I’m always happy to be transparent with voters,” Porter said. “I am very proud of my record of transparency and good governance and have been asked about this before by voters and have always been happy to provide full and complete information.”

Smith said the settlement could conflict with an FEC ban on third parties paying living expenses for federal applicants. He warned, however, that the situation was differentiated and unique.

“Suppose they were paying her mortgage? I think that would clearly be a problem,” Smith said. “Here is a little different from that. They’re just letting her keep a deal she had previously. But it seems to subsidize her income. If I was still serving on the committee and this complaint came in, I would be very interested to see her response.”

Porter said Smith’s analysis “is interesting to think about” and his question about whether the ban could apply to her situation “is exactly right.” But she added, “I don’t think he necessarily has all the facts about how housing is structured to be able to definitively answer that question,” citing his payment of property taxes as well as property fees and other expenses.

Smith responded that he was “not sure how the fact that she paid those fees changes anything.”

For decades, the cost of housing in Orange County has risen above the national average. The University of California Irvine’s solution was to build University Hills, its own exclusive academic community, where home values ​​are capped to make them more affordable and favorable mortgage rates are offered to those approved to live there.

The pent-up demand to live in University Hills is understandable in light of Irvine’s $1.3 million average price. Homes in the school’s subdivision have sold in recent years for about half their normal market value, according to 2021 University of California data. The community is a short drive from the Pacific Ocean and Laguna Beach. And the list of amenities includes a network of parks, walking trails, panoramic views and community pools. It also powers some of the most sought after schools in the region.

But for academics and administrators, the downside is that they are required to work full-time for the university, with a built-in exception for retirees. For those no longer employed by the school, however, an enforcement clause comes into play, which in Porter’s case would require her to pay off her mortgage within months.

When Porter was recruited, school officials outlined their expectations in a letter informing her that they would sponsor her application for the housing program.

“His primary duties, of course, will be to serve as a law professor,” school officials wrote in the letter, which Porter signed in December 2010. to maintain office hours and be available to mentor students.

Eight years later, after his election in 2018, Porter failed to fulfill those obligations.

Initially, the administrators signed two separate one-year leave periods that allowed him to keep his home, the documents show. But school officials expressed more concern about the deal in the run-up to Porter’s 2020 re-election, emails show.

“Is there any fixed limit to the number of years of unpaid leave? He added: “Some government service can, of course, last several years.”

Whytock, who donated $500 to Porter’s campaign in 2018, wrote a memo outlining the case for extending Porter’s license, suggesting there are no limits on how long this deal can go on. The plan required approval from the school’s vice president, which was granted in 2020, according to the emails.

Whytock did not respond to an email seeking comment.

In a statement, UC Irvine spokesman Tom Vasich said professors “on approved leave without pay remain UCI employees and may maintain their home in University Hills.”

Porter said he intends to win his election but would resume teaching if he lost. She declined to say whether she would seek housing elsewhere if she won.

After the AP interviewed Porter, spokesperson Jordan Wong made an additional comment, stating that the congresswoman was “unaware of Vice Chancellor Chris Whytock’s role in researching her license application” and “at no time” was in contact him about it.

Still, longtime observers of government ethics in Washington, including those with favorable views of the congresswoman, say it is difficult to reconcile Porter’s housing plight with her crusade rhetoric.

“She has a reputation for being highly ethical and demanding that others live up to that standard,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the Washington-based government watchdog group Public Citizen. the University.”

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Associated Press writer Collin Binkley contributed to this report.

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