For tenants in Jared Kushner’s buildings, seeing their landlord get a top position in the White House is as nightmarish as Donald Trump becoming president is for most New Yorkers.
“It’s disgusting. It’s insane. It’s ludicrous,” Mary Ann Siwek, who’s lived at 170 East 2nd Street for more than thirty years, said after Trump, Kushner’s father-in-law, tapped him to be an official senior adviser. “I don’t know how to tell you how despicable this man is.”
Kushner bought the East Village building three years ago for $17 million and immediately began what tenant advocates call “construction as harassment”: renovating vacant apartments in a way that makes life dangerous and miserable for the current residents, particularly the rent-stabilized ones. “We were breathing in dust and fumes. There was plaster everywhere. My ceiling collapsed a couple times. For six months we had to live like this.” At one point there was a gas leak bad enough to cause the fire department to cordon off the entire block.
Tenants couldn’t find out what was going on, she adds, because none of the workers spoke English. Kushner “was never around,” and representatives from his Westminster Management came by mainly to offer tenants money to leave. Siwek, now retired, turned down a $10,000 offer, and says some people got only moving expenses. Within nine months, she says, three-fourths of the tenants had left.
That enabled Kushner to renovate their apartments and raise the rents to luxury rates. Today, his management company advertises apartments there for $3,375 to $5,450 a month, while touting the building as the place “where Allan [sic] Ginsberg wrote his famous poem ‘Elegy.’ ” (Some clueless philistine apparently felt it was necessary to Anglicize “Kaddish.”)
This history didn’t stop Mayor Bill de Blasio from praising Kushner after the appointment was announced on January 9.
“I respect him a lot,” de Blasio told reporters at a press conference later that day. “He’s someone who really cares about New York City and is someone that would be very helpful to us. So I’m certainly pleased he’ll be in that role.” The mayor added that Kushner was “a lot more moderate” than many of Trump’s other appointees.
“Mayor de Blasio seems hopeful that his friendly relationship with Jared Kushner may be of some benefit to New York City, but our community has not benefited at all from Kushner’s ownership of close to forty buildings in the East Village,” the Cooper Square Committee, which has organized tenants in several Kushner-owned buildings, and the Fourth Arts Block association said in a joint statement. Kushner, they said, “has converted scores of affordable rent-regulated apartments into luxury housing that rents for $3,000–$5,000 per month” and repeatedly “faced allegations of harassment and lack of essential services” while doing that.
If de Blasio “stands by his words and thinks Jared Kushner is ‘reasonable and moderate,’ ” they added, “we suggest the Mayor come meet with Kushner tenants in the East Village to hear what they’ve been through under his ownership.”
“For de Blasio to be pleased about Kushner’s appointment because Kushner is ‘a lot more moderate’ than Trump’s other appointments is scary indeed!” says a tenant in one of his Brooklyn buildings, who asked not to be identified for fear of harassment.
“I want to be sure Kushner is made to reveal and divest from all of his real estate holdings, and is not absolved of anything — all his conflicts of interest, all his shady real estate deals…and all the horrific things he has done to tenants in his real-estate empire.”
A Westminster spokesperson did not respond by press time to questions about whether Kushner plans to divest from the buildings once he takes the White House job. Jamie S. Gorelick, a lawyer advising him, told the New York Times that Kushner would sell his interest in about 35 investments. He plans to sell them to his brother and a trust controlled by his mother, she said, and will not be involved in managing the properties he retains.
Kushner typically doesn’t use the building-wide eviction-demolition-renovation process he undertook in Siwek’s building, however. His business model might be called “apex scavenger”: Over the last five years, he’s spent more than $400 million buying more than fifty buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Astoria, primarily in the East Village — at least forty of them from Ben Shaoul and Stone Street Properties, two landlords who specialized in “maximizing value” by clearing out rent-stabilized tenants through trumped-up eviction attempts, threats, and construction-as-harassment, and then flipping the buildings to new owners.
Anthony Donovan, who lives in one such East Village building, says Kushner is a lot more moderate than the previous owners: Steve Kaplan, who conned several tenants into signing “special agreement leases” that omitted the clauses saying they were rent stabilized and residents had the right to stay, and Shaoul, who kicked those tenants out and put the rest through “two years of hell, of construction and lies.”
Today, he says, the services are good, and Westminster staff responsive. “But I know the game they were playing,” he says of Kushner. “He knew what Shaoul was doing, and he bought the building after Shaoul did the dirty work.”
Tenants in Kushner’s East Village buildings, however, have often complained about lack of services. In April, residents of 118 East 4th Street, after five months spent with a garbage mountain in their backyard and with no cooking gas, won a court settlement in which Westminster agreed to make repairs, give rent-stabilized tenants 60 percent off their rent for the time without gas and market-rate tenants 30 percent off, and cover the tenants’ legal fees.
The problems are “more about chaotic management than about gut renovation,” says Edward Osborne, who lives nearby. “Kushner’s been legitimately distracted in the last year.” Turnover in Westminster’s offices is so high, he adds, that you’re lucky if you can reach the same person twice.
He says he’s “horrified” by Kushner going to the White House. “I don’t think he’s demonstrated very good management principles.”
“Trump’s appointment of Kushner is in keeping with his cabinet selections of amoral billionaire crooks, liars, and thieves,” says another East Village rent-stabilized tenant, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “This guy’s company preys on the feeble and infirm, lies, charges illegal late fees, puts tenants at risk in myriad ways, whose overall message to tenants is a shrug and a ‘you get what pay for’ re: heat, gas, hot water, modern plumbing, and electricity.”
“We felt the complete lack of empathy and compassion from our landlord,” she adds. “The whole country’s going to experience what we’ve been going through.”
Kushner never once showed up to meet with tenants at 170 East 2nd Street to respond to their complaints about the construction, says Siwek. That, she believes, reflects his business ideology. “He couldn’t care less about human suffering,” she says. “He couldn’t care less about the city. He couldn’t care less about anything but his money and his family.” And he “stays very far away” from the results of his actions.
She has one wish for him: “I would like him to stay for a month in one of the rooms while the construction was going on.”