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Where should Congress live during a pandemic? Some freshmen pick the office

A new generation of office-sleepers has emerged, while others brave D.C.’s real estate market

Freshmen members of the House Republican Conference join Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for a photo on the House steps of the Capitol on Jan. 4. The chaotic days since then haven’t changed the minds of some who plan to sleep in their offices.
Freshmen members of the House Republican Conference join Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for a photo on the House steps of the Capitol on Jan. 4. The chaotic days since then haven’t changed the minds of some who plan to sleep in their offices. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It’s never easy to hunt for an apartment, but for some of the newly elected members of Congress seeking housing quickly in the middle of a pandemic, it was a particularly strange time to move. 

“The D.C. apartment search was an unusual experience for me,” said New York Democrat Ritchie Torres, who said he has never looked for one outside New York City, where he has lived his entire life. 

He found an apartment online and toured it remotely, not setting foot inside until moving day.

“My election to Congress amid COVID-19 have brought changes that, a year ago, would have been unthinkable,” he said in an email to Heard on the Hill. 

Torres is one of dozens of incoming lawmakers and staffers who rushed to find a place to live near the Capitol as they prepared for their new jobs, joining a mini housing scramble that happens every other year in Washington. The pandemic has only raised the stakes.

For him, the “most tangible cost of congressional life is the burden of paying two rents in two of the most expensive cities in America,” Torres said. The progressive Bronx native, who served on the New York City Council and chaired the committee that oversees the city’s housing authority, has been an advocate for affordable housing. 

Money isn’t always a problem, since Congress is teeming with millionaires. (This year saw the return of ultra-rich car alarm mogul Darrell Issa, for example.) But decisions about where to stay while in Washington also involve political math. 

Other newcomers have decided not to rent or buy at all. Instead, they’re joining the tribe of members who sleep in their offices and shower in the gym, despite concerns from colleagues that doing so during a pandemic — and now a security crisis at the Capitol complex — isn’t the best idea. 

Living where they work

Republican Reps. Madison Cawthorn and Nancy Mace both plan to sleep in their offices.

Keeping Washington at arm’s length “heavily played” into his decision, said Cawthorn, who railed against “the swamp” during his campaign and last week spoke at the pro-Trump rally that would eventually end in a mob assault on the Capitol. 

“I much rather prefer my mountains of western North Carolina,” said Cawthorn, who expects to fly back to his district on weekends and during breaks.

Cawthorn, who uses a wheelchair, said sleeping in his office has so far suited his needs when in Washington, and it allows him to work late without having to worry about a commute. 

“We’ve got some handicapped-accessible showers here that I can use in the gym, and my office is extremely accessible,” he said.

The 25-year-old said he considered trying to buy a place in Washington, but it would be “very difficult to have something that would be suitable for a wheelchair, even with significant modifications.”

Finding a property that meets the requirement for someone who uses a wheelchair is tough, he said. “You have to pick the right home if you’re not building it yourself.” 

What happened on Jan. 6 hasn’t changed his thinking about where to stay. After the invasion of the Capitol that left five dead, “I think it’s probably even safer,” he said. 

Cawthorn was among the speakers addressing the pro-Trump crowd hours before the attack but has since described the violence as “thuggery.” He hasn’t gotten any updated guidance from Capitol Police or security officials about office-sleeping, he said.

As for Mace, the newcomer from South Carolina, she said her top priorities are to “avoid slipping into the Beltway Bubble” and to maximize her time with her constituents and kids. 

“I intend on spending the vast majority of my time in D.C. working, not socializing,” she said, and the events of the past week haven’t changed that. “So for me to rent a full-blown apartment here in Washington when I’m trying to do everything I can to spend as much time as possible outside of it just didn’t make sense for my kids and me.”

Mace said she has had COVID-19 herself and understands the concerns around transmission amid the pandemic, while pointing out that her office is closed to all but “essential visitors like House support staff.”

Concern for essential workers, including cleaning staff, was part of the uproar around office-dwelling last summer, when Rep. Louie Gohmert tested positive for the coronavirus. Known for sleeping in his office and often refusing to wear a mask, the Texas Republican drew criticism for treating the Capitol complex like his personal bedroom during a pandemic.

One alumnus who came to his defense at the time was Sen. Kevin Cramer, who “loved” sleeping in his office when he was a member of the House. “Spending 12 hours during the day in your office” while getting business done isn’t much different from bedding down there, the North Dakota Republican said in August.   

Hundreds of lawmakers have slept in their offices in recent decades, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and former Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, though the practice has also drawn fire for exposing staff to overly intimate scenarios. 

Ultimately, officials did nothing to block lawmakers from sleeping in their offices during the pandemic, despite calls from California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier to ban it

While many in Congress are now being vaccinated, which should eventually help protect them, a new round of coronavirus infections is emerging, apparently linked to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. At least three lawmakers have tested positive after sheltering in a crowded safe location.

Mace said she will listen to any new guidance that comes from the House physician, practices social distancing and wears a mask “just about everywhere.” 

Rents fall, house prices jump

Aside from wanting to prove to constituents that they’ll never feel at home in “the swamp,” members sometimes cite Washington’s high-priced real estate as a reason to roll out a cot in their offices. Most senators, representatives, delegates and the resident commissioner from Puerto Rico draw an annual salary of $174,000. Leadership gets paid more.

As their bosses weigh the pros and cons of entering the metro-area housing market, congressional staffers don’t have much of a choice. 

One newly hired congressional staffer called his recent apartment search “absolutely bizarre.”  

Things have changed a lot during the pandemic, according to real estate agents. “We’re seeing, I would say, probably an 11 percent drop in rent over last year,” said Jan Brito, president of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors.

The price drop could be partially due to the flexibility some workers have gotten as they work remotely while offices remain closed, she said. Some District dwellers have moved back in with family to have larger spaces as they ride out the pandemic.  

The median price for a D.C. rental has dropped from about $2,600 last January to $2,300 this month, according to Bright MLS data. 

“In terms of staffers that might want to come in and rent,” she said, “they’re certainly in a position to negotiate the rent prices that are being offered by landlords.”

Some of the best places to look for a deal might be in neighborhoods close to Capitol Hill like Navy Yard and NOMA, which feature new, fancy buildings and several grocery stores, said Brent Jackson, a real estate agent who has worked in the D.C. area for more than a decade. 

Rentals might be plentiful, but buying a single-family home could get tricky, he said. 

“We’re seeing multiple offers, and it’s not uncommon to see, you know, 10 to 15 offers on a property and going anywhere from 10 to 20 percent over ask price,” he said. “And a lot of times these buyers have to waive every contingency to be considered.”

The median list price in Washington was $600,000, and the median sales price was $682,000, according to GCAAR’s November residential sales report. 

Both Jackson and Brito said the market for buying condominiums is a bit softer, offering more options and less competition.

With virtual showings still going strong, the pandemic still raging and District residents urging their neighbors to pause short-term rentals as more violent groups vow to descend on the city ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration, the process of finding housing has never felt like this.

“I had to trust my gut and judge the landlord’s trustworthiness over my phone screen and was never able to look at the place in person,” said the congressional staffer who described a surreal experience sorting through rental listings as he geared up for his new job. “Luckily, it worked out in the end, with a new place across the Potomac, but the process was plain awkward.”  

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