Katie Porter’s university housing contract is under scrutiny

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By BRIAN SLODYSKO, Associated Press

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

The progressive Democrat and law professor, who laments the cost of housing in her district, bought it in 2011 for $523,000, a below-market price secured by a program the university uses to attract academics who otherwise couldn’t afford to move in the city to live affluent area. The only admission requirement was that she continue to work for the school.

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

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

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That’s allowed Porter, a rising Democratic star and fundraising powerhouse whose own net worth is estimated at up to $2 million, to keep her home even as her return to school remains in doubt.

Porter’s housing situation does not violate US House ethics rules. But it contradicts the profile she sought to cultivate in Washington as a passionate critic 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 says wrote in an online fundraiser in 2020.

It also coincides with a growing interest in the school’s housing program, which has led to a year-long waiting list of more than 250 school academics and administrators as a statewide housing shortage sends off-campus housing prices soaring, he said the numbers of the university 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-reliable Republican district, which has become more competitive in recent years has become.

“It sounds like the kind of inside deal that makes people really angry with 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, which was appointed by Bill Clinton.

In an interview, Porter declined to say whether her housing situation was adequate. But she said she “followed applicable (University of California) guidelines 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 constituents and have always been happy to give them full and complete information.”

Smith said the agreement could violate an FEC ban on paying third parties for federal candidates’ living expenses. However, he cautioned that the situation is nuanced and unique.

‘Suppose they paid off their mortgage? I think that would be pretty clearly a problem,” Smith said. “It’s a little different here. They’re just letting her honor a deal she had before. But it seems to subsidize their income. If I were still on the Commission and received this complaint, I would be very interested to see your reply.”

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

Smith responded that he’s “not sure how the fact that she paid those fees makes any difference.”

Orange County’s housing costs have been above the national average for decades. The solution at the University of California Irvine was to create University Hills, their own exclusive academic community, where home values ​​are capped to make them more affordable and cheap mortgage rates are offered to those who are allowed to live there.

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

But for academics and administrators, the compromise is that they have to work full-time for the university, with an exemption for retirees. However, for those no longer employed at the school, an enforcement provision applies which, in Porter’s case, would require them to pay off their mortgage within months.

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

“Your primary duties will, of course, 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 hold office hours and be available to mentor students.”

Eight years later, after her 2018 election, Porter failed to honor those commitments.

First, administrators signed two separate year-long leaves of absence, allowing her to keep her home, documents show. But school officials have expressed more concern about the deal ahead of Porter’s 2020 re-election, emails show.

“Is there a hard limit on the number of years of unpaid leave… One of our administrators mentioned that they seem to remember a two-year limit,” vice dean of law Chris Whytock wrote in an April 2020 email. He added added: “Part of the civil service can of course last for several years.”

Whytock, who donated $500 to Porter’s campaign in 2018, wrote a memo setting out the reason for extending Porter’s furlough and suggested there were no limits to how long such an arrangement could last. The plan required approval from the school’s vice provost, which the emails said was granted in 2020.

Whytock did not respond to an email requesting comment.

In a statement, UC Irvine spokesman Tom Vasich said that faculty “remain UCI employees and may keep their University Hills home if unpaid leave is approved.”

Porter said she intended to win her election but would resume classes if she lost. She refused to say if she would look for an apartment elsewhere if she won.

After AP interviewed Porter, spokesman Jordan Wong provided additional comment, stating that the congresswoman was “unaware of Vice Dean Chris Whytock’s role in investigating her furlough request” and “at no time” contacted him about it .

Still, longtime government ethics watchdogs in Washington, including those who view the congresswoman favorably, say it’s difficult to reconcile Porter’s housing situation with her crusading rhetoric.

“She has a reputation for being very ethical and for requiring others to live up to that standard,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Washington-based state watchdog group Public Citizen. “Let’s hope she doesn’t neglect her own ethics at the university.”

Associated Press writer Collin Binkley contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed.

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