While Jared Kushner was visiting Iraq with a bulletproof vest over his blazer and failing to find $7 billion to finance his phallic eighty-story glass tower on Fifth Avenue, tenants in two of his Lower Manhattan buildings were dealing with a more prosaic problem.
Rats. Big ones.
“One of the neighbors opened the door to take out the garbage and a rat jumped on her leg,” says a rent-stabilized tenant at 156 Sullivan Street in the South Village who doesn’t want to give his name because he’s “nervous that the landlord might do something.”
“I can see there’s rats running around all over the place,” he told the Voice, referring to the enclosed alley next to the building where the garbage cans are kept. “A lot of times, you can see the bags move because the rats are in there eating.”
Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is arguably the president’s top adviser. With no previous experience in government, he now holds roles stretching from Middle East diplomacy to overseeing a commission on opioid addiction, from discussing who knows what with Russian oligarchs to promoting the administration’s Wall Street wing over the white-nationalist visions of Stephen Bannon. The son of a politically connected New Jersey developer, he has bought his way to being a leading New York City residential landlord over the last five years: He’s spent more than $400 million amassing more than fifty buildings, most of them in the East Village. Kushner claims to have divested some of his real estate holdings since joining the Trump administration but has been very vague about how or which ones. A spokesperson for Kushner’s Westminster Management declined to comment on the ownership and divestment issues.
Kushner acquired the 156 Sullivan Street building in 2012. There were problems with rodents before then, the tenant says, but “the rats have gotten a lot worse since they bought the building.”
At 199-203 East 4th Street, a group of three East Village buildings Westminster Management acquired in 2013, rats have become common in the backyard over the last few months, says a tenant who also asks for anonymity. She shows video taken in early April of six rats nosing around for crumbs on the ground between the yard’s rows of garbage cans, with one ducking into the holes they chewed in the plastic cans. In another video, a fat rat drags a chunk of white bread wider than its body across the yard.
“I lifted the lid to a garbage can and a rat jumped out,” she says. Now, when she takes the garbage out, she whacks one of the cans before she goes into the enclosure, to scare away the rats.
The two properties have two common denominators: piled-up garbage and a history of tenant harassment. At Sullivan Street, photos taken on different days show plastic bags stuffed with garbage stacked atop the cans, with empty detergent bottles and more garbage bags strewn on the pavement by the overflowing recycling bins. Westminster periodically buys new cans, the tenant says, but they’re plastic, and the rats “just chew through them.”
On East 4th Street, bags and loose garbage are piled on the ground in front of the enclosure where the cans are kept. That problem “has existed since Kushner took over,” says the tenant. “I think this is a long time coming because they failed to address the overflow problem and the sanitation problem from the start.”
This isn’t the first time Kushner’s buildings have had problems with garbage. A tenant at 118 East 4th Street told this reporter last year that the five-steps-high pile of refuse in the backyard was “Dickensian” and included “decomposing rat carcasses.”
“We continue to actively address pest-control issues across our portfolio,” a Westminster spokesperson told the Voice. “While rodent issues are, of course, a well-known aspect of New York City living, Westminster actively works to eradicate any issues when they arise. At 156 Sullivan Street, where the last registered tenant complaint regarding rodents occurred in June 2016, we recently upgraded our cleaning staff, sealed concrete around the building, and increased exterminator visits. At 199-203 East 4th Street, we are similarly taking action by redesigning the trash area and purchasing more secure trash cans.”
The chewed-open plastic garbage cans on East 4th Street were replaced with metal cans in early April.
Both addresses, like most of the forty-odd buildings Kushner has amassed in Lower Manhattan over the past five years, were purchased from owners who had driven out most of the rent-stabilized tenants and then flipped them for a substantial profit. At least 24 of them came from Ben Shaoul, the East Village landlord perhaps second only to Steven Croman in terms of notoriety for “construction as harassment” — renovating vacant apartments in a way designed to make life miserable for the remaining residents.
Kushner acquired 156 Sullivan Street in August 2012 from Benchmark Real Estate as part of an eight-building package. Benchmark had purchased the buildings between October 2009 and October 2011. While the company was renovating vacant apartments at 156 Sullivan Street, the tenant says, “twice our ceiling fell in.”
By the time Kushner bought the twenty-two-apartment building, only eight rent-regulated tenants remained, and the renovated units were going for $4,000 a month.
Benchmark had acquired the eight buildings for a total of $33.25 million. It sold them to Kushner for $58 million. He bought 199-203 East 4th Street from Shaoul in January 2013 as part of a package of seven buildings, all on East 4th Street between Second Avenue and Avenue B. Tenants told us last year that living through Shaoul’s renovations was “two years of hell,” with phone service and cooking gas cut off for months.
Shaoul had acquired the seven properties in 2010 and 2011 for a combined total of $25.1 million, according to city property records cited by the Real Deal. Kushner paid him $49 million. By the time the deal happened, only 28 of the 115 apartments were still rent-stabilized. Westminster recently advertised a three-bedroom apartment at 199-203 East 4th Street for $5,200 and an eight-room duplex for $7,000.
The 4th Street tenant says that in building up his empire, Kushner failed to set up an office to manage the buildings “that functions in an efficient and effective way,” and that the management office’s “attention to individual apartment and building-wide issues has mostly been derelict.”
“Every time you call, you get somebody new,” says the Sullivan Street man. He describes the staff as “bright and eager, but nobody knows what’s going on.”
He says he “got tired of calling” the city’s 311 complaint hotline about the rats. Inspectors told him he’d have to take the landlord to court if he wanted the problem resolved, he adds. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s list of open violations for 156 Sullivan Street and 199-203 East 4th Street does not include any for rats.
Westminster “shouldn’t be let off the hook yet for the rats,” says the tenant who filmed the rat videos. “It remains to be seen how they carry through,” she says. “Will the rats be eradicated and the area kept clean?”
She adds, “Anything good that has happened was long-fought-for and hard-come-by.”