'Working Class' Reps Say They Can't Afford D.C. Rents While Earning $174,000 a Year

Progressive politicians are irritated they have to make the same tradeoffs in their living situation as other high-income professionals.


When the federal government moved down to Washington, D.C., in 1800, lawmakers grumbled about leaving behind Philadelphia's plentiful accommodations for the new capital's limited housing stock of boarding houses and taverns.

Thus was established a tradition of politicians complaining about finding housing in D.C., which continues to this day.

Amongst the incoming 118th Congress are several freshmen progressive representatives who say that having to spend their $174,000 congressional salary on housing in the District is not just difficult but a deliberate effort to exclude them from the government.

"For those of us who are working-class, this is yet another reminder that this place wasn't designed for people who actually represent their communities," said freshman Rep. Delia Ramirez (D–Ill.) to The Cut yesterday.

Ramirez—herself a homeowner and landlord back in her district—said that D.C.'s housing costs are so high that she's had to give up on her plan of renting an apartment by herself. Instead, she is splitting the $3,000 rent on a Capitol Hill rowhouse with another congresswoman.

Some 34 percent of D.C. households, and 43 percent of renter households, are considered cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Ramirez is certainly more fortunate than that. Per the numbers she gave The Cut, she's paying only 10 percent of her congressional salary on her D.C. accommodations.

The Cut nevertheless asserts that Ramirez "knows the housing struggle." She apparently isn't the only one.

In December last year, freshman Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D–Fla.), the country's first Gen Z congressman, garnered a lot of media attention when he said that his bad credit allegedly cost him an apartment and an application fee in the city's ritzy, Capitol-adjacent Navy Yard neighborhood.

"This ain't meant for people who don't already have money," he said on Twitter in December. He told the Washington Post he'd try his luck with "mom-and-pop" landlords and, if need be, rely on couch-surfing or Airbnb until something more permanent materialized.

Frost's struggle earned him a lot of headlines and the public sympathy of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.), who had likewise complained about her alleged inability, repeated credulously in the press, to afford housing in D.C. when she was first elected in 2018.

"Been there," she said on Twitter. "This is one of many ways Congress structures itself to exclude and push out the few working-class people who *do* get elected."

None of these "working class" representatives have been pushed out of office by D.C.'s admittedly high housing costs.

At most, they've had to settle for a housing situation that's somewhat less spacious, convenient, or solitary than they'd been hoping for. (Ocasio-Cortez doesn't seem to have had to make any such compromises. The Free Beacon reports she's settled in a luxury building in Navy Yard.)

In this light, the complaints from Ramirez, Frost, and Ocasio-Cortez come across as less than revolutionary. One might even consider them entitled. They certainly lack perspective.

All are trying to lay claim to a working-class political identity while demanding they be freed from having to make tradeoffs in their living situation that even well-salaried professionals in D.C. have to put up with.

A need for space might mean sacrificing proximity to the office. Economizing on rent might mean forgoing the privacy of living alone. Sometimes, when moving to a new city, you have to fill out more than one lease application or rent an Airbnb for a while.

Members of Congress having to do this doesn't seem like the biggest scandal in the world.

D.C. is indeed unaffordable to many people who earn well below $174,000 a year. Making the city more affordable to them would involve the elimination of, or at least easing of, zoning and height restrictions that limit how much new housing can be built.

To their credit, both Ocasio-Cortez and Frost call out these "exclusionary zoning" restrictions in their housing platforms. To their demerit, they propose some pretty heavy-handed federal interventions to eliminate them. They also combine their zoning reform proposals with destructive nationwide rent control.

In truth, outside of attaching some strings to federal grants, there's not much the U.S. Congress can do to reform state and local housing laws.

The one exception, of course, is D.C.

The District's home rule status means that Congress retains ultimate legislative authority over the city. If Frost, Ramirez, and others wanted to make their new home more affordable truly, they could put forward a bill eliminating the city's zoning restrictions. They could introduce legislation repealing the city's high Airbnb taxes, costing Frost a pretty penny while he looks for more permanent housing.

They might not fix all these freshman representatives' problems. Even if D.C. were turned into a YIMBY utopia freed from zoning, renters will still have to undergo credit checks and make tradeoffs between having a yard and walking to work.

But a more affordable city means more working-class people could live alongside highly paid members of Congress.