ProPublica’s investigative reporter Alec McGillis has been following the predatory practices of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner that have earned him the label of being a slumlord. Kushner’s real-estate company would engage in deceptive practices, provide shoddy apartments, fail to make urgent repairs, and harass tenants with debt collection and eviction lawsuits even during the pandemic. ( I wrote about this last year. )
McGillis has a new report out that a judge has ruled that the Kushner companies violated multiple laws with their practices. The Maryland attorney general brought the lawsuit as a result of increased awareness created by ProPublica’s reporting.
It’s been six years since Dionne Mont first saw her apartment at Fontana Village, a rental housing complex just east of Baltimore. She was aghast that day to find the front door coming off its hinges, the kitchen cabinet doors stuck to their frames, mouse droppings under the kitchen sink, mold in the refrigerator, the toilet barely functioning and water stains on every upstairs ceiling, among other problems. But she had already signed the lease and paid the deposit.
Mont insisted that management make repairs, but that took several months, during which time she paid her $865 monthly rent and lived elsewhere. She was hit with constant late fees and so-called “court” fees, because the management company required tenants to pay rent at a Walmart or a check-cashing outlet, and she often couldn’t get there from her job as a bus driver before the 4:30 p.m. cutoff. She moved out in 2017.
Four years later, Mont has received belated vindication: On April 29, a Maryland judge ruled that the management company, which is owned by Jared Kushner’s family real estate firm, violated state consumer laws in several areas, including by not showing tenants the actual units they were going to be assigned to prior to signing a lease, and by assessing them all manner of dubious fees. The ruling came after a 31-day hearing in which about 100 of the company’s current and former tenants, including Mont, testified.
“I feel elated,” said Mont. “People were living in inhumane conditions — deplorable conditions.”
The judge’s ruling outlined all the ways that Kushner’s company nickel-and-dimed people to death, piling on fees after fees that the tenants, who were barely getting by, could not afford to pay.
In her 252-page ruling last week, which was first reported by the Baltimore Sun, Daneker determined that the company had issued a relentless barrage of questionable fees on tenants over the course of many years, including both the fees identified in the 2017 article and others as well. In more than 15,000 instances, Westminster charged in excess of the state-maximum $25 fee to process a rental application. In more than 28,000 instances, the company also assessed a $12 “agent fee” on court filings against tenants even though it had incurred no such cost with the courts — a tactic that Daneker called “spurious” and which brought the company more than $332,000 in fees. And in more than 2,600 instances, the Kushner operation assessed $80 court fees to tenants at its two complexes within the city of Baltimore, even though the charge from the courts was only $50. “The practice of passing court costs on to tenants, in the absence of a court order,” Daneker wrote, “was deceptive.”
The manifold fees suggested a deliberate strategy to run up tenants’ tabs, Daneker wrote, repeatedly calling the practices “widespread and numerous.” She concluded that “these circumstances do not support a finding that this was the result of isolated or inadvertent mistakes.”
The case is not quite over.
Each side will next have the chance to file exceptions, as objections are known, that will be considered by the final arbiter in the consumer protection division of the attorney general’s office. The state’s lawyers will also propose restitution sums for tenants and a civil penalty. Once the consumer protection arbiter issues a ruling, both sides will have the right to challenge it in the state’s appeals courts.
Also awaiting resolution is a separate class-action lawsuit brought by tenants that alleges, among other things, that the company’s late fees exceeded state limits. A Court of Special Appeals judge has yet to issue a ruling following a January oral argument on the plaintiffs’ appeal of previous rulings against both their attempt to certify themselves as a class and against the substance of their claim regarding late fees.
Despite the drawn-out process, including a three-month delay because of the pandemic, former tenants took satisfaction in the first judicial affirmation of their accounts of improper treatment.
Kushner deserves to be sent to prison for the misery he has caused so many people. While I would love to see it, I am not hopeful. Wealthy and well-connected people go to prison for white collar crimes only if their victims are wealthier and better-connected people, as was the case with the late Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme.