Lawmakers' Rent Payments Raise Ethics Questions While Congress is struggling to address plummeting home values and mortgage meltdowns, some members of Congress are facing another kind of housing crisis: Questions have been raised recently about the fairness of what they pay for their own digs.
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Lawmakers' Rent Payments Raise Ethics Questions

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Lawmakers' Rent Payments Raise Ethics Questions

Lawmakers' Rent Payments Raise Ethics Questions

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DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

And here is a problem for some members of Congress. With the mortgage crisis, finding a reasonably priced rental is getting harder, which has raised questions about their below-market rents. David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA: Charles Rangel, the powerful New York Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters at the Capitol yesterday how he feels about the rent-stabilized studio apartment he uses as a study and poker den.

CHARLES RANGEL: I love it. I mean, I really love it. The rent is right.

WELNA: 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.

RANGEL: 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.

WELNA: Rangel's been forced to wrestle with this after the New York Times described his living arrangements a week ago in a front-page story. Since then, he's 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.

RANGEL: It would take a damn fool to tell the landlord that I have decided that if I didn't live here or if the apartment was vacated and you could go to the so-called private market, what rent you would demand and just give him the gift.

WELNA: Rangel recoils when a reporter suggested it might clear the air if the House Ethics Committee looked into his New York living arrangements

RANGEL: 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.

WELNA: 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.

MELANIE SLOAN: 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, 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.

WELNA: Sloan's group did file an ethics complaint with the Senate's ethics panel. It did so after the National Journal reported that Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman was paying only $600 a month rent 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.

NORM COLEMAN: Are they going to go to my other colleagues? I'd love to - in fact, maybe that's what we should do. We should have a review of how senators live and exactly what's the fair market value. I'd be open for that. I have no problem with that. Again, I have no, 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.

WELNA: 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.

CHUCK SCHUMER: Listen, I share a house with four other people. I share a room with a person. Ask Norm if he does that.

WELNA: The person Schumer shares a room with is the Senate's number-two Democrat, Dick Durbin.

DICK DURBIN: I live with Schumer, you know, that's an added burden.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DURBIN: And you know, the place is not - I don't know what Norm Coleman's place looks like. Ours looks like a Goodwill store, you know, on drugs.

WELNA: There have also been questions about whether other senators got special deals on mortgages. Still, lawmakers appear in no rush to disclose what they pay for housing. David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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