Scandals Hit Members Where They Live
UPDATE 2:35 PM: After generally refusing to address the Times' questions, Rangel held a press conference today on what he called a "puzzling" story and released a lengthy statement strongly denying that there is anything inappropriate about his housing situation. Rangel's full statement is now appended to the end of this item.
ORIGINAL POST: We're all familiar with the usual categories of congressional scandal like "bribery" and "affairs," but perhaps we should add another bugeoning avenue for potential wrongdoing to the pantheon -- cheap rent.
The New York Times has a story today on the living arrangements of Rep. Charles Rangel (D), the longtime powerhouse in Empire State politics who chairs the Ways and Means Committee. Rangel rents four apartments in a fancy Harlem building, three of which he uses as a residence and the other as a campaign office. Because the units are rent-stabilized, Rangel's monthly payments are well below market rates.
The story raises questions about whether it's appropriate for one person to have so many rent-controlled apartments, given that the city's rent laws are designed to help lower-income residents rather than wealthy members of Congress. The report also says state and city regulations require stabilized apartments to be used as a primary residence, not an office. The owner of the Lenox Tower building, the Olnick Organization, has been working to convert many rent-controlled units into market-rate housing, and employees of the company have given Rangel at least $7,000 in campaign contributions since 2004.
Of course, this isn't the first time a lawmaker has been accused of getting a sweetheart deal on rent; in fact, it's not even the first time it's happened in the last month. Just two weeks ago, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) was forced to answer questions about the basement room he rents on Capitol Hill from a high-profile GOP campaign operative. A complaint has been filed against Coleman with the Senate Ethics Committee. In turn, some Republicans are trying to make hay of the rates paid by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) in a house owned by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), though Miller is obviously not a big campaign contributor or lobbyist.
Congressional residences have been much in the news of late. The mortgage crisis has brought new scrutiny to lawmakers' home loans, and Sens. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) face investigations by the Ethics panel for allegedly receiving preferential mortgage rates from Countrywide Financial Corp. Perhaps the most memorable congressional scandal in recent years -- the saga of ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) -- was sparked not by cheap rent but rather a sweetheart home deal.
Other past controversies include:
-- In 2003, there was a brief flurry of interest in the news that half-dozen lawmakers lived in a townhouse owned by a religious organization. As with Boehner, their rent payments were not expensive but did not appear to be below market rates.
-- In 2000, the House ethics committee concluded that Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) showed "poor judgement" in her dealings with an African businessman, including accepting free lodging in his Miami condominium.
-- Also in 2000, the House ethics committee issued a letter of reproval to then-Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) for his relationship with lobbyist Ann Eppard. Shuster was criticized by some watchdog groups for being a frequent overnight guest of Eppard's, the idea being that he was taking a "gift" of free lodging from the lobbyist. The ethics panel concluded that Shuster had paid Eppard rent.
Obviously, the allegations against Rangel are of a familiar strain, though there appears to be no exact precedent for a member allegedly exploiting rent stabilization laws. Republicans are already criticizing Rangel for the story, but it's not clear if or when he'll face any punishment. Unlike in the Senate, the House ethics panel is under no obligation to consider complaints by outside groups, should one try to stir up an investigation of Rangel. It is possible he could face probes by the state or city of New York, given that it's their housing regulations he may have violated.
As for Rangel himself, the NY Times story says the lawmaker called his rental arrangement "a private matter that did not affect his representation of his constituents," before hanging up on the reporter. But if history is any guide, lawmakers' housing deals are anything but "private."
The full statement issued today by Rangel:
I called this press conference to respond to a puzzling article in today's New York Times that was critical of my living arrangements in my hometown of Harlem. The story said I live in a penthouse, and insinuated that I have some sort of sweetheart deal with the landlord. Nothing could be further from the truth.
All you have to do is look at this 50-year-old building to see that there are no penthouses, certainly not my apartment. I pay the maximum legal rent, and in fact, would be violating the law if I paid more.
When my family moved in, apartments were not scarce in Harlem, and rents were relatively low, including those in Lenox Terrace. Because I have not moved the rents have increased only incrementally each year, and therefore have remained low, especially compared to today's "downtown" rentals.
My wife, Alma, and I moved into 40 West about 20 years ago. Our apartment--the same place we live in today--was two units combined into one by the previous occupant, Dr. Eugene Callendar, a prominent minister and community leader. It is where we raised our two children and where our three grandchildren visit with us.
A few years ago, as our family grew, we rented a small unit next door to our apartment, which served as a sort of den and work room for me and as an extra room for our children, and now our grandchildren, to sleep when they visit us.
The office mentioned in the story is a small apartment, which I use for working and to make fund-raising calls. When the apartment was rented about ten years ago, there was no question about whether it was appropriate in view of the fact there were--and still are--other offices in the building.
The main point that I wish to make today is not only that the rents I pay are the maximum allowable by law, but that the units I've rented for close to 20 years are my home. What has been described as a double apartment, is the same apartment it's been even before we moved in; the small unit next door is just another room in our house.
What is described as below market rent is the protection afforded by the New York rent control law to residents like myself from the escalation in market price that is pressing so many of us to leave a community we can no longer afford.
Some people are surprised that in my 78 years I've basically lived in two places, 40 West 135th St, and before that, in a brownstone three blocks away on 132nd Street which was owned by my grandfather and where I was born and lived for more than 50 years. It is for that reason that rents have not increased that much for me. Not because of any sweetheart deal.
I know what it's like in the rental market today: apartments are scarce, rents are high, and some unscrupulous landlords and using under-handed means to evict tenants. For years, I've been fighting them, including owners who have relationships to the owners of this building.
In my role on the Ways and Means Committee, housing has been a top priority. Since 1986, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which I authored, has been responsible for the development of 2 million rental units across the nation, and over 6,500 affordable units in Upper Manhattan alone. This year, I am working on adjustments to the tax code to expand the credits by 10 percent.
I am grateful that the GI Bill provided me--a poor high school dropout from Lenox Avenue--with the education to become a lawyer and to eventually make my way to Congress where my position on the Ways and Means Committee is allowing me to make a difference in the lives of my constituents, friends and neighbors. Harlem will always be my home.
Posted by: Fascist fighter | July 11, 2008 12:50 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Congressional Sweet Deals | July 11, 2008 1:43 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: JBE | July 11, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: theaz | July 11, 2008 2:03 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Former Hill Staffer | July 11, 2008 2:08 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: K Blit | July 11, 2008 3:42 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: starryperdun | July 11, 2008 3:51 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Sandy5274 | July 11, 2008 4:27 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Mike | July 11, 2008 4:35 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Joe | July 11, 2008 4:46 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Robt | July 11, 2008 4:50 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Capemh | July 11, 2008 4:54 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: copelli21 | July 11, 2008 5:14 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Anonymous | July 11, 2008 5:25 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Astoria | July 11, 2008 5:28 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Ebonyflash | July 11, 2008 5:51 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Anonymous | July 11, 2008 7:02 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Mamamay | July 12, 2008 12:54 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Zippy in Annapolis | July 12, 2008 8:20 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Sandy 5274 | July 12, 2008 10:20 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Ralphinphnx | July 13, 2008 10:26 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Concerned Voter | July 13, 2008 5:47 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Pre AmeriKKKan | July 14, 2008 12:44 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Grandma Shirley | July 14, 2008 1:33 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Sandra Matthews | July 15, 2008 12:06 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: BobMorganthau | July 16, 2008 3:35 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.