Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight Committee and Angry Beavers understudy, is retiring from Congress this week to (maybe) host his own Fox News show.
In an interview with The Hill, Chaffetz suggested that members of Congress should receive a $2,500/month D.C. housing allowance:
“Washington, D.C., is one of the most expensive places in the world, and I flat-out cannot afford a mortgage in Utah, kids in college and a second place here in Washington, D.C.,” Chaffetz said. “I think a $2,500 housing allowance would be appropriate and a real help to have at least a decent quality of life in Washington if you’re going to expect people to spend hundreds of nights a year here.”
It is hard to summon much good will toward members of Congress generally, who already make $174,000 a year, and toward Chaffetz specifically, who has made meddling in local D.C. politics his pet project during his time in Congress. He has threatened Mayor Muriel Bowser over the District’s liberal policies on same-sex marriage, marijuana and immigration, and unsuccessfully tried to stymie an assisted euthanasia measure that Bowser signed into law in February.
For that reason, Chaffetz’s proposal has been met with scorn and derision—and not just from liberals. But in attacking his hypocrisy, Chaffetz’s critics might be missing a larger political opportunity. Applied broadly—that is to say, applied to every renter, and not just renters who happen to be members of Congress—Chaffetz’s rent stipend idea could help make housing affordable again for renters in D.C. and across the country.
Renters across the U.S. need relief. According to a 2015 Harvard study, 7.5 million renters spent more than half of their income on housing in 2001. That number rose to 11.4 million renters by 2014, and is expected to top 13 million renters by 2025. I can independently confirm that living in Washington is expensive—if I ever need a good cathartic laugh-cry, I look up local Zillow listings. Still, D.C. is only the sixth-most expensive U.S. city to live in, according to a Kiplinger study from this year.
Chaffetz—who once argued that if poor people could afford iPhones, then they could afford multi-thousand-dollar health care premiums—has inadvertently stumbled upon a pretty good progressive policy idea. If the United States were to provide support to America’s millions of renters, through a direct stipend or a tax credit, it could help them accumulate wealth, eventually lifting them out of the rental market and into the home-buying market.
Homeowners can already deduct up to $1 million in mortgage interest—a fact I had never bothered to look up because I assume I will never be able to afford a house. This is among the most regressive elements in our entire tax code, and it amounts to a massive subsidy for the upper-middle class and the very rich. Intellectually honest experts across the political spectrum hate the mortgage tax deduction for this very reason, but that it also why it will never go away. So it’s about time that renters, too, got their own state support.
The details of the policy can be hashed out by experts (Chaffetz did not quite invent the idea; the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is among the many groups that have proposed some version of a renters’ credit), but Democrats ought to be saying that even this utterly conservative politician has identified a social problem that government support can help to address.
Great idea, Jason! Let’s hope this is only the first step on his glorious journey toward embracing democratic socialism. And if you ever want to legally toke up in my private domicile, the door is wide open.