The Homeless Congresswoman-elect

Octavio-cortez pic

A 2018 campaign picture of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. From her website

A political earthquake hit New York last June. A young woman named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knocked off a longtime incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley, who was being positioned to possibly take over Nancy Pelosi’s position as speaker. Crowley, a ‘centrist’ Democrat who in many ways the epitome of the politicos who turned off the electorate in 2016, went down to defeat. And Ocasio-Cortes became a cover girl for having taken down a long-serving NY Democrat who was in line for leadership roles. 

But the story’s happy ending is keying off a new story that isn’t quite so happy. Ocasio-Cortez has bumped up against a new complication–she can’t afford to rent an apartment in DC. Funny thing, but you can campaign for Congress or you can work 12 hour shifts at a restaurant but you can’t do both at the same time. And I’m guessing she hasn’t been able to go back to her day-job now that she’s a  famous congresswoman-elect. From the CNBC article:

Her transition period will be “very unusual, because I can’t really take a salary,” she said in an interview with The New York Times. “I have three months without a salary before I’m a member of Congress. So, how do I get an apartment? Those little things are very real.”… According to real-estate website Zillow, the median rent in Washington, D.C., is $2,700.

So Ms. Ocasio-Cortez isn’t even in office yet, and she’s already found a teachable moment about wealth and poverty and the ‘real’ requirements for public office. Housing costs were a real issue in the primary fight with Crowley:

Housing affordability is a pillar of Ocasio-Cortez’s political platform and was a key issue in her primary campaign against leading House Democrat Joe Crowley…

“New York 14 is one of those last working-class congressional districts in New York City. These communities are very rapidly seeing the cost of living go up: In the last three years or so, the median price of a two-bedroom apartment in New York 14 has gone up 80 percent,” she said to Vogue in June. “Our incomes certainly aren’t going up 80 percent to compensate for that, and what that is doing is a wave of aggressive economic displacement of the communities that have always been here.”

But putting aside extra money to prep for the election campaign wasn’t enough to tide her over. She lost her father to cancer and has been trying to help support family by working long shifts. And now, having gotten the brass ring, she’s having great difficulty finding housing to move into a mere two months from today. She’s also finding that the princely sum of $174K a year isn’t the princely sum that it looks like to the members of the Gig economy. It’s way better than what she was earning at the Flats Fix Taqueria in Union Square, but it puts her at the bottom of the 1%. Corporate attorneys and lobbyists earn many multiples of that, and those are the people she’s competing with for a place in DC. That’s a realization that many in the 99% don’t realize. I wrote  about the champagne wishes and caviar dreams of the working class, and the knowledge gap may apply to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez as well. 

She has gained scant sympathy for her plight, with many pundits disparaging her for not being able to figure out what she’d need to live in DC to do this job. She became a target of the pundits at Fox, who rode her mercilessly recently. DC is nearly as expensive housing-wise as the five boroughs. It’s undeniably in a different cost universe than the Bronx. And apparently, incoming politicos are always taken aback by cost of living in the Capitol. It doesn’t take long for sticker shock to push politicos to figure out schemes to afford housing. Congressmen have been known to illegally shack up in their offices rather than pay rent. Others a bit better financed might share a townhouse with other legislators. But even though a congressional salary lands you in the 1%, it isn’t enough to cover monthly rent and first/last month on a pied a terre in Georgetown. You can get a place in Maryland or Northern Virginia, but your living costs are CHEAPER– none of this is cheap. And our intrepid Congresswoman (the youngest woman to ever enter Congress) won’t even see a first paycheck until February.

There’s also an issue of how willing the DCCC is to help out a freshman congresswoman whose whole raison d’etre for running was to shake up a DNC establishment that learned nothing from the Bernie Sanders run that Ocasio-Cortez helped to coordinate.  Her campaign stances on Universal healthcare, Housing as a human right, and guaranteed employment surely don’t sit well with the few DNC corporate donors who are left. And her plea to not accept PAC money cheeses off a DNC that demands congresscreatures to constantly dial for dollars. It’s likely that none of Ocasio-Cortez’ freshman colleagues want to be roomies with her–not with the way the wind is blowing around the Speaker’s office.

I’m sure that someone will step forward to help Ms. Ocasio-Cortez with her housing problems. Nothing is permanent–she’ll find someone who will consider her a worthy tenant. But as I close this piece, I’d like to note something I mentioned in passing. You don’t hear about congresscreatures having these problems because our political class almost all COMES FROM MONEY. Something like 51% of the members of Congress are millionaires, and the rest are not strivers holding down table waiting gigs in Union Square. American media narrative is all too ready to tell folksy stories about politicians that don’t acknowledge the fact that virtually all of them had money–either from family connections or from direct inheritance. It will be interesting to watch America’s first Homeless Congresswoman’s career as it develops.

Best of luck.


PS: I am no expert on European electoral practices as compared to American party behavior. I studied the Bundestag during the period of the rise of Die Grunen (German Green party), and I met a few people in Europe who were MP’s when I went over for the Hague Appeal for Peace. But I’d point out that Europe has non-plutocrats in their political system in a way that the US does not. The Dutch Parliament had members who were school teachers or doctors or nurses, and they didn’t have family fortunes enabling their political ambitions–the parties could support the few political ads allowed to be run in those countries, and people’s jobs were flexible enough to allow them to run for public office. Thanks to Citizens United and the tsunami of corporate money it has unleashed, people have to be independently wealthy to run for public office in the US. It’s our loss. 


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