Rep. Katie Porter’s college housing deal is drawing scrutiny

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

The progressive Democrat and law professor, who has complained about the cost of housing in her district, bought it in 2011 for $523,000, a below-market price secured through a program the university uses to lure academics who might not otherwise be able to afford it. afford to live in the affluent area. The only condition of eligibility was that he continue to work for the school.

For Porter, this version of subsidized housing has outlasted her time in the classroom, extending nearly four years after she took an unpaid leave of absence from her $258,000-a-year teacher to serve in the U.S. House.

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

That allowed Porter, a rising Democratic star and fund-raiser whose net worth is estimated at $2 million, to keep her home even as her return to the school remains in doubt.

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

It also coincides with a surge in interest in the school’s housing program, which has led to a multi-year waiting list of more than 250 academics and school administrators, as a nationwide housing shortage drives up prices for homes off campus development , according to university data. 2021 show.

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

“It sounds like an insider deal that really pisses people off in Congress,” said Bradley A. Smith, a professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, and a Republican former member of the Federal Election Commission appointed by Bill. Clinton.

In an interview, Porter declined to say whether the housing arrangement was appropriate. But he said he “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 in the past by constituents and have always been happy to give them full and complete information.”

Smith said the deal could violate the FEC’s ban on third parties paying the living expenses of federal candidates. He cautioned, however, that the situation was delicate and unique.

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

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

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

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

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

But for academics and administrators, the trade-off is that they are required to work full-time for the university, with an exception built into retirees. For those no longer working at the school, however, an enforcement order begins, which in Porter’s case would require her to pay off her mortgage within months.

When Porter was hired, school officials outlined their expectations in a letter informing her that they would grant her application to the housing program.

“Your primary duties, of course, will be to serve as a law professor,” school officials wrote in the letter, which Porter signed in December 2010. “You will be expected to teach two classes … you will be expected to maintain office and be available to student mentors”.

Eight years later, after her election in 2018, Porter stopped fulfilling those obligations.

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

“There is some fixed limit on the number of years of leave without pay … One of our administrators mentioned that they seemed to remember a two-year limit,” Law School Vice Chancellor Chris Whiteock wrote in an April 2020 email. He added: ” Some government service may, of course, last for several years.’

Whytock, who donated $500 to Porter’s 2018 campaign, wrote a memo outlining the case for extending Porter’s license while suggesting there are no limits on how long such an agreement could continue. 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 faculty “on approved leave without pay remain UCI employees and may retain their University Hills home.”

Porter said she plans to win her election, but will continue teaching if she loses. He declined to say whether he would look for housing elsewhere if he won.

After the AP interviewed Porter, spokesman Jordan Wong provided additional comment, stating that the congresswoman had “no knowledge of Vice Provost Chris Watock’s role in the investigation of her leave request” and “at no time” had contact with of that.

But longtime government ethics watchdogs in Washington, including those with favorable views of the congresswoman, say it’s hard to equate Porter’s housing situation with her crusading rhetoric.

“She has a reputation for being highly ethical and holding others to that standard,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the Washington-based government watchdog group Public Citizen. “Let’s hope she doesn’t suffer from her own ethics The University.”

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Associated Press writer Collin Binkley contributed to this report.

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