George Santos, the first-term Republican representative from New York, may go down as the most famous fabulist in the history of Congress. In the run-up to his election last year from a district that includes parts of Long Island and Queens, he claimed to be a successful businessman, a college volleyball star, and the Jewish son of a 9/11 victim—all of which turned out to be false.
But there was one particular Santos lie I keep returning to because the story he told about himself tells a larger story about electoral politics: He ran for office as a landlord and a homeowner—but the real George Santos was a renter.
During his campaigns, Santos claimed to own more than a dozen properties with his family and to have a mansion in the Hamptons. Amid a backlash from property owners over pandemic protections for tenants, he crafted an elaborate backstory about the entitled renters who refused to pay their share, tweeting, in 2021, that he was “nearing a 1 year anniversary of not receiving rent on 13 properties!!!”
Will we landlords ever be able to take back possession of our property? My family and I nearing a 1 year anniversary of not receiving rent on 13 properties!!! The state is collecting their tax, yet we get 0 help from the government. We worked hard to acquire these assets…
— George Santos (@Santos4Congress) February 9, 2021
But in the years leading up to his first run for office, Santos was in reality the picture of housing insecurity, crammed into small living spaces with family and friends and struggling to pay the rent. As he navigated a series of eviction cases, he was a frequent presence in housing court. The stories he told then were of a different sort than the Gatsby-ish boasts of the campaign—not grandiose, merely sad. He once told a judge that he needed to access the flat he’d been evicted from to feed his fish; a roommate told Gothamist that Santos didn’t even own a fish tank.
Santos’ more recent circumstances have been hard to pin down. When he started running for office in 2020, he was still residing with his sister in an apartment that was also the subject of eviction proceedings. Neighbors told the New York Times last fall that they suspected he was living in a house that his campaign was paying to rent. If he owns his own place now, it’s a very, very recent development. And this makes him unusual in a different way from all the other ways he’s unusual: More than a third of all Americans are renters, but in Congress, almost everyone owns a home.
Just how few renters are there in elected office? A 2022 study published in Housing Policy Debate attempted to crunch the numbers for the first time, by studying financial disclosures and property records. At the congressional level, the numbers were particularly stark: “[T]here are currently only 17 US representatives and one US senator whom we cannot confidently say own property,” the authors wrote. Of the 10,000 federal, state, and local officials they analyzed, “At least 93% of officeholders in each category either own a home or are likely to do so.”
This imbalance “has everything to do with the poor tenant protections we see especially at the state level across the country,” says Tara Raghuveer, the Kansas City-based campaign director for People’s Action’s Homes Guarantee program, which organizes for tenant protections.
“Homeowners are markedly more opposed to new housing in their communities,” the Housing Policy Debate paper noted, and “are substantially more likely than renters to vote and attend local political meetings.” And not coincidentally, governments at every level work to accommodate the wishes of people who pay property taxes over the needs of seemingly everyone else.
The image of a modern elected official is deeply rooted in the idea of home ownership. You are more likely to run for office, and to win, if you are rich, and members of Congress are much, much more affluent than the people they represent. The median net worth in the most recent Congress was more than $1 million. If you’re worth a million dollars, the real estate you own is almost certainly part of the reason why. Candidates sell a specific domestic ideal, about themselves and their audience, in campaign literature—walking and smiling with their large families, in front of their large houses. Candidates with less affluent backgrounds get scolded for the sorts of paperwork issues that pile up in the absence of wealth—like tax liens and evictions. (Plenty of members of Congress do rent apartments near Capitol Hill, but these are part-time accommodations for which they can now be reimbursed by the government.)
Last fall, a group of California Democrats decided to form a “renters caucus” in the state legislature, which Curbed referred to as the “first of its kind.” As co-founder Matt Haney, a state assemblyman from San Francisco, noted at the time, about 40 percent of California residents live in rental housing. But of the 120 colleagues they surveyed, only four were full-time renters. By comparison, a 2019 analysis by CalMatters found that more than a quarter of legislators were not just homeowners themselves, but landlords.
“If you’re a part-time state legislator, one of the easiest ways you can make passive income on top of your salary is to own a couple of properties,” Raghuveer says, “or even more than a couple.”
Four renters versus 116 homeowners. Four tenants versus 30 landlords. That’s the rough breakdown of lawmakers in America’s most populous state, where decades of policies at various levels of government to protect homeowners’ investments and whimsies helped to create a massive housing crisis that has filtered into every other aspect of civic life. California accounts for nearly a third of the nation’s homeless population, a concentration that in turn has emboldened a strain of reactionary politicians such as former Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso.
The experiences of lawmakers who rent only underscores the perspective that lawmakers who don’t are missing. The New York Times recently wrote about Chi Ossé, a New York City councilman from Brooklyn who complained on Twitter about his apartment search. Ossé, who is 25 and looking for his own place for the first time, “began by searching the listing site StreetEasy for a one-bedroom apartment that would rent for $1,500 to $2,000,” but “quickly realized he was ‘delusional,’” the story explained. By the end of his housing search—if it was, in fact, the end—he was looking for places that cost twice as much, and burning much of his free time in the process. And that’s what the process is like for someone making $150,000 a year.
Looking for an apartment in a city that has chosen not to build enough of them, and where residents and elected officials work together to block the construction of new units, can change the way you look at your city, just as paying property taxes and dealing with a mortgage shapes the politics of homeowners. Ossé’s search in turn has filtered into his work: He was now considering a new bill to address broker’s fees, which are one of the many accumulating tolls the city’s housing market slaps on its residents. Apartment-hunting in a housing crisis is the sort of radicalizing experience I wish a lot more than four percent of Congress had to deal with.
The homeowners versus renter divide doesn’t fit neatly into a Democratic and Republican frame. But it’s the power dynamic that increasingly shapes the politics of places like Los Angeles and New York City. This unequal playing field exists not just among elected officials but within their electorate. In February, City and State offered a telling stat on turnout in last year’s elections in two of New York’s biggest counties: “Suffolk County, where 80% of residents own their homes, outvoted Brooklyn, where 70% of residents rent—despite Suffolk having 1 million fewer residents.”
That’s the environment in which Anthony Devolder, denizen of housing court, became George Santos, disgruntled landlord—a property owner like you, struggling to collect what he was owed from deadbeats like them.
The New York Post and other conservative media and elected officials spent much of the last two years painting the state’s eviction moratorium as yet another liberal handout. On Santos’ Long Island, lawmakers from both parties have opposed a measure to mandate higher-density zoning near train stations—the views of existing homeowners always take precedence. If you try to advocate for new affordable housing units in some New York communities, people will actually get violent. If you were a fabulist, and that was your audience, what kind of story would you tell?
You do not, in fact, have to hand it to George Santos. He is under investigation from every jurisdiction short of the ICC. His approach to politics, to the extent he has one, is cynical and cruel. He is what you get when you ask a monkey’s paw for more representation in Congress. He is neither the tenant-legislator we need nor the one we deserve. But we really do deserve more.