While Congress is struggling to address plummeting home values and mortgage meltdowns, some prominent lawmakers are facing another kind of housing crisis: Questions have been raised recently about the fairness of what they pay for their own digs.
Charles Rangel, the New York Democrat who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told Capitol Hill reporters Thursday how he feels about the rent-stabilized studio apartment he uses as a study and poker den: "I love it. I mean, I really love it. The rent is right."
It's on the 16th floor of a luxury high-rise in Harlem, adjacent to two other rent-stabilized apartments he also occupies, and six floors above a fourth rent-stabilized unit he's been using for a campaign office. The rent Rangel pays for all four units is about $40,000 a year less than what he'd pay were they not rent-stabilized.
"The allegation is that the difference between the rent, the legal rent I pay, and the marketplace rent is a gift, and that's what I have to wrestle with," he said.
The New York Times described Rangel's living arrangements a week ago in a front-page story. Since then, he has decided to give up the apartment occupied by the campaign office, but he says he pays the maximum rent under the law for the other units and sees no need to pay more. And he recoiled when a reporter suggested it might clear the air if the House ethics committee looked into his New York living arrangements.
"I think that's a little too close to home, I really wish I felt so independent I could say it's nobody's damn business the way I live as long as I'm paying the legal rent. But I don't suspect there'd be a lot of members that would want to be moving in with me, so I won't be clearing the air for them," he said.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington would like to file an ethics complaint about Rangel's New York housing. But its executive director, Melanie Sloan, said she won't, only because the House ethics panel acts solely on complaints filed by members.
"People are looking to see if members of Congress are using their positions to get special treatment, and that seems unfair, and in fact House and Senate rules prohibit that, so it's a legitimate area of concern," Sloan said. "And members are also hiding this for the most part from public view because Senate and House rules don't require reporting these kinds of living arrangements on financial disclosure forms."
Sloan's group did file an ethics complaint with the Senate's ethics panel after the National Journal reported that Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman was paying only $600 a month to occupy the basement of a million-dollar townhouse on Capitol Hill owned by a Republican political operative — and that Coleman had missed rent payments at least twice in the past year. Coleman, who faces a tough re-election bid this year, insists he's being unfairly targeted.
"Are they going to go to my other colleagues? ... We should have a review of how senators live and exactly what's the fair market value. I'd be open for that," Coleman said. "I have no problem with that. I have no hesitation at all about the fairness of the living arrangement, and if anything I think Minnesotans would be somewhat startled to see the choices that senators have to make."
Coleman compares his situation to that of his Democratic colleague from New York, Chuck Schumer, who he says pays $750 a month in rent. Schumer would not say how much rent he pays his landlord, California House Democrat George Miller.
"Listen, I share a house with four other people. I share a room with a person. Ask Norm if he does that," Schumer said.
The person Schumer shares a room with is the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin.
"I live with Schumer — that's an added burden," Durbin said. "And you know, the place is not — I don't know what Norm Coleman's place looks like. Ours looks like a goodwill store on drugs."