Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner ooze with the kind of upscale celebrity lifestyle as her father. But like so many wealthy people, their luxurious lifestyle is squeezing money out of poor people. Alec MacGillis of the investigative journalism outfit ProPublica has an expose of the practices of Donald Trump’s son-in-law’s real estate business and it is not pretty. It says that the company, through another agency, hounded the poor people who live in the units that qualify for Section 8 vouchers to help pay the rent, taking them to court to squeeze money out of them over the smallest infraction.
It is a long article that cites case after case of poor and sick people who are being harassed for sums of money that are huge to them, and can send them into bankruptcy but a pittance for the Kushners, less than the cost of a suit bought by Jared or a handbag bought by Ivanka. Kushner’s company takes advantage of the fact that poor people cannot afford to hire lawyers and thus get crushed by the legal system that allows these firms to garnish their wages.
When I presented JK2 Westminster’s record of litigation to Matthew Cypher, a Georgetown University business professor who used to work for the real-estate giant Invesco, he said it was highly unusual to put so much effort into pursuing former tenants in court. “These people fade into the shadows of the night,” he said. “It’s amazing to me that there’s that much to go after.” Brian Pendergraft, an attorney in Greenbelt, Maryland, who works on both sides of landlord-tenant litigation, told me he had heard of large property-management companies pursuing former tenants for unpaid rent but not going so far as to pursue tenants who predated the company’s ownership of a complex. “I guess you can do it,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s cool.”
But Matthew Hertz, whose Bethesda, Maryland, firm represents landlords and tenants in similar cases, explained to me that there is a logic behind such aggressive tactics. The costs of the pursuit are not as high as you might imagine, he said — people are not that hard to find in the age of cellphones and easily accessible databases. “If I give my process server a name and phone number, it’s generally enough to trace you,” he said. “If I have a date of birth and Social Security number, it’s even easier.” The legal costs can be billed to the defendant as attorney’s fees, if the terms of the lease allow. And garnishing wages is relatively easy to do by court order, assuming the defendant has wages to garnish.
The article describes the buildings run by Kushner’s company as being very poorly maintained. Some of the residents had voted for Trump and did not know that their landlord was Kushner
The worst troubles may have been those described in a 2013 court case involving Jasmine Cox’s unit at Cove Village. They began with the bedroom ceiling, which started leaking one day. Then maggots started coming out of the living room carpet. Then raw sewage started flowing out of the kitchen sink. “It sounded like someone turned a pool upside down,” Cox told me. “I heard the water hitting the floor and I panicked. I got out of bed and the sink is black and gray, it’s pooling out of the sink and the house smells terrible.”
Cox stopped cooking for herself and her son, not wanting food near the sink. A judge allowed her reduced rent for one month. When she moved out soon afterward, Westminster Management sent her a $600 invoice for a new carpet and other repairs. Cox, who is now working as a battery-test engineer and about to buy her first home, was unaware who was behind the company that had put her through such an ordeal. When I told her of Kushner’s involvement, there was a silence as she took it in.
“Get that [expletive] out of here,” she said.
Very few of the complex residents I met, even ones who had been pursued at length in court by JK2 Westminster, had any idea that their rent and late fees were going to the family company of the president’s son-in-law. “That Jared Kushner?” Danny Jackson, a plumber in his 15th year living at Harbor Point Estates, exclaimed. “Oh, my God. And I thought he was the good one.”
East of the city, I met Chris Freimiller, a 38-year-old resident of the company’s Morningside Park complex, who was smoking Newports in his car before heading to work at a Rite Aid distribution center. Freimiller complained to me about the persistent leaks from the toilet and the ceiling damage it had caused, and about being hit repeatedly with late fees. He told me he voted for president for the first time ever last year — for Donald Trump. His vote, he said, was motivated by “the racial and police issues. How bad it got with Obama and how he seemed to promote the cop-bashing and the racial divide.” Did knowing that he was sending his late fees to Trump’s son-in-law change anything? “Yeah, actually,” he said. “As if they need any more money.”
At the Carroll Park complex, I met Mike McHargue, a private investigator, and his girlfriend, Patricia Howell. “They’re nothing but slumlords,” Howell told me of Westminster Management. “They take everyone’s money.” When I asked if they knew who was behind the company, they said they did not. “Oh, really?” Howell said when I mentioned Kushner’s name. “Oh, really. And I’m a Trump supporter.”
The entire Trump family is rotten to the core. They exemplify the greed and selfishness and the lack of ethics and simple human decency that has pervaded almost the entire ruling class in the US.
Every time I see Jared Kushner, it makes me think of the movie American Psycho. He would fit so well in that crowd.
Tabby Lavalamp says
“Economic anxiety” my ass.
Pierce R. Butler says
Not to mention Ivanka’s evil stepmother: Melania Trump’s $51,000 jacket draws attention.
Marcus Ranum says
That should not treated as a critique of Kushner in particular -- the problem is capitalist rent-taking in general..
Marcus Ranum @ #4:
I think, in the wider context of systematic exploitation and the self-assumed right of the wealthy to fleece the underclasses, you are right.
But in this particular case I see it more as a profound differential in the ability of the two parties to have the rules and provisions of the contract enforced. The owners and management company can enforce the contract and punish any rules violations, real or imagined, no matter how minor, and demand compensation because the costs of such enforcement are both low to begin with and billable.
Compare that to the ability of the tenants to enforce their legal rights to have the buildings maintained in a manner that does not constitute a health and safety violation.
A single late rent payment triggers a charge, which then stacks with the original charge and itself becomes an opportunity for further penalties if not paid exactly on time. It almost seem reasonable until you realize that we are, in many cases, talking about people in Section Eight housing who have little of no money to spare at the end of the month. Five dollars shy at the end of the month becomes $50 shy on the fifth, and perhaps $150 behind on the fifteenth … and then comes the next month. Once they fall behind catching up becomes very difficult. Life for the poor is precarious and contingent upon nothing going wrong. A sprained ankle, a crushed pair of glasses, or a blown tire can collapse the entire system for the poor.
While tenants are penalized for every lapse the management company gets to make repairs and correct damage caused by simple lack of maintenance when they damn well get around to it. While there is supposed to be legal recourse for tenants the entire legal system is stacked against them if they try to go that way.
The wider context is rent seeking. The specific context is the profound differentials in power and ability to use the legal system.
Mano Singham says
lanir’s description of the precarious lives that poor people live is spot on. This is why for me, the definition of being rich is when the cost of a sudden house or car repair or health emergency does not have catastrophic consequences.