WASHINGTON (AP) — In Orange County, California, where the typical house sells for $1 million, Rep. Katie Porter’s four-bedroom, three-bath residence in a leafy subdivision on the University of California Irvine campus is a bargain.
The progressive Democrat and law professor, who has lamented the cost of housing in her district, purchased it in 2011 for $523,000, a below-market price secured through a program the university uses to lure academics who couldn’t otherwise afford to live in the affluent area. The only eligibility requirement was that she continue working for the school.
For Porter, this version of subsidized housing has outlasted her time in the classroom, now extending nearly four years after she first took unpaid leave from her $258,000-a-year teaching job to serve in the U.S. House.
But the ties go deeper, with at least one law school administrator, who was also a donor to her campaign, helping secure extensions of her tenure while she remained in Congress, according to university emails obtained by The Associated Press.
That has allowed Porter, a rising Democratic star and fundraising powerhouse whose own net worth is valued at as much as $2 million, to retain her home even as her return to the school remains in doubt.
Porter's housing situation does not violate U.S. House ethics rules. But it cuts against the profile she has sought to cultivate in Washington as an ardent 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 solicitation in 2020.
It also coincides with a growth in interest in the school's housing program, which has resulted in a yearslong waitlist of more than 250 school academics and administrators, as a nationwide housing shortage sends prices for homes outside the on-campus development skyrocketing, university figures from 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 to the once reliably Republican district that has become more competitive in recent years.
“It sounds like the sort of insider deal that really makes people mad at 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 was appointed by Bill Clinton.
In an interview, Porter declined to say whether her housing arrangement was appropriate. But she said she “followed the applicable (University of California) policies, as well as all applicable state and federal law.”
“I am always happy to be transparent with voters,” Porter said. “I take a lot of pride in my record on transparency and good governance and have been asked about this before by voters and have always been happy to give them full and complete information.”
Smith said the arrangement could run afoul of an FEC prohibition on third parties paying the living expenses of federal candidates. He cautioned, however, that the situation was nuanced and unique.
“Let's suppose they were paying her mortgage? I think that would pretty clearly be a problem,” Smith said. “Here, it is a little different than that. They are just letting her keep a deal that she had previously. But it does seem to subsidize her income. If I were still serving on the commission and that complaint came in, I’d be very interested in seeing her response.”
Porter said Smith's analysis “is interesting to think about" and his question about whether the prohibition could apply to her situation "is exactly right.” But she added,“ I don’t think he necessarily has all of the facts about how the housing is structured to be able to definitively answer that question," citing her payment of property taxes, as well as homeownership fees and other expenses.
Smith responded that he is “not sure how the fact that she paid those fees changes anything.”
For decades, the cost of housing in Orange County has soared above the national average. The University of California Irvine’s solution was to build University Hills, their own exclusive academic community, where home values are capped to make them more affordable and favorable mortgage rates are offered to those approved to live there.
The pent-up demand to live in University Hills is understandable in light of Irvine's $1.3 million median home price. Houses in the school's subdivision have sold in recent years for about half of their regular market value, according to University of California figures 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, walking paths, scenic vistas 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 in for retirees. For those no longer employed by the school, however, an enforcement provision kicks in, which in Porter's case would require her to pay off her mortgage within months.
When Porter was recruited, school officials outlined their expectations in a letter informing her that they would sponsor her application to the housing program.
“Your primary duties, of course, will be to serve as a professor of law,” school officials wrote in the letter, which Porter signed in December 2010. “It is expected that you will 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 ceased to fulfill those obligations.
Initially, administrators signed off on two separate one-year periods of leave that enabled her to keep her house, documents show. But school officials voiced more concern about the arrangement in the run-up to Porter's 2020 reelection, emails show.
“Is there any fixed limit on the number of years of leave without pay ... One of our administrators mentioned that they seemed to recall a two-year limit,” law school Vice Dean Chris Whytock wrote in a April 2020 email. He added: “Some government service may, of course, last for a number of years."
Whytock, who donated $500 to Porter's campaign in 2018, wrote a memo outlining the case for extending Porter's leave, while suggesting that there are no limits on how long such an arrangement could continue. The plan required the approval of the school's vice provost, which was granted in 2020, according the the emails.
Whytock did not respond to an email seeking comment.
In a statement, UC Irvine spokesperson Tom Vasich said faculty "on approved leaves without pay remain UCI employees, and they can maintain their home in University Hills.”
Porter said she intends to win her election, but would resume teaching if she lost. She declined to say whether she would look for housing elsewhere if she won.
After the AP interviewed Porter, spokesperson Jordan Wong provided an additional comment, stating the congresswoman “had no knowledge of Vice Dean Chris Whytock’s role in researching her request for leave" and “at no point” was in contact with him about it.
Still, longtime government ethics watchdogs in Washington, including those with favorable opinions of the congresswoman, say it's difficult squaring Porter's housing situation with her crusading rhetoric.
“She has a reputation for being highly ethical and requiring others to live up to that standard," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the Washington-based government watchdog group Public Citizen. "Let’s hope she is not running short of her own ethics with the university.”
Associated Press writer Collin Binkley contributed to this report.