WASHINGTON – It’s not quite “Rich Man, Poor Man,” but the story of how Rep. Chris Collins lives in the nation’s capital and how Western New York’s other lawmakers live couldn’t be more different.
Three weeks after his 2012 election to Congress, Collins purchased a brand new two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,131-square-foot condominium in a trendy neighborhood a few blocks northeast of the Capitol. The purchase price: $775,000.
It’s a unit in a former convent that has been converted into the Landmark Lofts at Senate Square, which is, according to its website, “a brand new urban resort where 19th century styles meets 21st century luxuries!”
Meanwhile, Reps. Brian Higgins and Tom Reed live a few blocks away – in their Capitol Hill offices, where there’s no kitchen, no full bath, no luxuries and no rent.
“I’ve had two kids in college,” Higgins, D-Buffalo, said in explaining his money-saving move.
Higgins said that living in his office is also more convenient, given the early mornings and late nights that are common on Capitol Hill. And Reed, R-Corning, cited convenience as the main reason why he sleeps in his office.
But the housing choices of Western New York’s federal lawmakers also reflect their very different financial situations.
Collins, an entrepreneur before entering politics, ranked as the 17th-richest member of Congress, based on personal financial-disclosure statements filed by 535 lawmakers in 2012, the Roll Call newspaper reported last fall. And a 2013 personal financial-disclosure form filed this spring by Collins, R-Clarence, shows that he got even richer last year, with a net worth of at least $22.5 million and perhaps as much as $96.3 million.
In contrast, Higgins, a career politician, listed between $5,007 and $77,000 in assets and debts of between $115,001 and $300,000 last year. Most of that debt consisted of a mortgage on Higgins’ South Buffalo home, but it also included credit card debt of between $15,001 and $50,000.
Reed, a lawyer and former Corning mayor, reported assets of between $233,007 and $645,000, albeit with student loan and mortgage debt that was almost as high.
Of course, there is nothing really new or surprising about Collins’ wealth, which he has worn as a badge of honor ever since first running for Congress in the 1990s.
But it’s not that he’s flaunting his wealth by buying his condo in D.C.’s burgeoning H Street Northeast corridor. Housing prices are almost three times higher in Washington than in Buffalo, according to the National Association of Realtors. So the unit for which Collins paid $775,000 in the nation’s capital would cost about $279,000 back home.
Besides, Collins said, he has good reasons for buying his own place for his time in Washington.
“A mental separation from work and nonwork is a just way to recharge your batteries,” he said. “So for my own effectiveness in Congress, that mental separation is important.”
On top of that, Collins’ wife, Mary, visits Washington on occasion, and his daughter Caitlin, who has a summer internship in D.C., is living with him here now. “It’s good to have the convenience of having a place where the family can come down,” Collins said.
Still, the Landmark Lofts aren’t exactly starter homes. Photos of the units on realty company websites show an array of glittering granite countertops and sparkling stainless steel appliances amid sprawling apartments with open floor plans that seem designed for entertaining.
It’s likely a comfortable nest for a person such as Collins, who reported income of between $1.83 million and $10.1 million off his investments last year.
That income came both from the companies he has owned for years, as well as his stock investments, many of which he sold last year.
“It was really my own investment decision,” Collins said. “I’m somewhat of a value investor.”
He’s also a congressman with some sway over federal policy who owned and then sold stock in companies such as National Fuel Gas, Halliburton Co. and JPMorgan Chase last year.
Such investments could raise conflict-of-interest questions, but Collins said he has never considered putting his investments in a blind trust, as some wealthy politicians do.
“I think transparency is important, and I’ve certainly complied with the regulations for personal financial disclosure,” he said. “But I saw no compelling reason to put them in a blind trust.”
And while he continues to be listed as director and chairman of three companies – ZeptoMetrics, Audubon Machinery and Block Industries – he said, “I gave up any day-to-day management role all the way back in 2007, when I ran for county executive. They’re mostly title-only, just because of the family ownership.”
Meantime, the Higgins family doesn’t own much more than a house, and the Buffalo congressman has a mortgage on that. His son, John, graduated from SUNY Fredonia last year, and his daughter, Maeve, is still at Canisius College.
Higgins vowed to pay for all of his children’s college costs, which he acknowledges have caused some financial pressures even though his annual salary as a member of Congress is $174,000. His wife, Mary Jane Hannon, earned $54,562 as a teacher.
“My wife’s a schoolteacher, and we’re just at that point where we don’t get (college financial) aid, so it’s our full responsibility, so that’s challenging,” Higgins said.
Besides, “there’s no cheap living in Washington,” Higgins noted, and that’s for sure. A survey of Capitol Hill studio apartments advertised for rent on the Zillow.com website this week found the median monthly rent to be $1,625.
And so Higgins crashes on the couch in his office in the Rayburn House Office Building, ignores the occasional 12:30 a.m. test of the security alarm system as best he can and then heads down to the House gym, where he pays $400 a year for workout and shower privileges.
It’s a routine he shares with Reed, whose finances are far stronger than Higgins’ but who said he decided, after a year of renting, that there is really no reason for him to have an apartment.
“I was finding that we spend so much time – late nights, early mornings – having to be in the office,” Reed said. “And my lease came up, and I just found it was more practical, to be perfectly honest with you, to stay in their office.”
About 50 House members do the same, and believe it or not, the lifestyle of some senators isn’t much more fancy. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has crashed in the living room of a notoriously unglamorous townhouse that he has shared with other lawmakers for decades – which is the model for “Alpha House,” a television satire produced by Amazon.
In contrast, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., owns a Capitol Hill townhouse with her husband, Jonathan, where they are raising their two young sons.
As for Higgins, he reported a mortgage of between $100,001 and $250,000 on his South Buffalo home, as well as credit card debt of between $15,000 and $50,000.
Those credit cards are in his wife’s name.
“She manages that,” Higgins said. “She’s scheduled to eliminate that in 36 months. I think that’s kid-related expenses.”
Financial planners frown on the notion of piling up large amounts of credit card debt, given that the interest rate on credit cards is so high. According to Bankrate.com, the average credit card interest rate is 13.02 percent – more than four times the rate on a home equity line of credit.
But the Higgins family’s credit card debt is nothing unusual. Federal Reserve statistics show that the average household credit card debt stands at $15,191.
And to Higgins, it just serves as further proof that he’s not one of those fat-cat politicians.
Noting that he has spent his career in public service, Higgins said: “I’m not coming to the public sector after spending time on Wall Street or something.”