When Americans were introduced last year to Ivanka Trump’s husband and the nation’s prospective son-in-law in chief, it was as the preternaturally poised, Harvard-educated scion of a real-estate empire whose glittering ambitions resembled Donald Trump’s own. In 2007, Kushner Companies, run at the time by Jared and his father, Charles, bought the aluminum-clad skyscraper at 666 Fifth Avenue for a record-breaking $1.8 billion; they are now seeking partners for a $12 billion plan to replace it with a glass tower that would be 40 stories taller. In 2013 they acquired 17 buildings in Manhattan’s East Village for about $130 million, and three years later they spent $715 million on a cluster of buildings owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses on prime land in Brooklyn’s fast-developing Dumbo district.
But the Kushners’ empire, like Trump’s, was underwritten by years of dealing in much more modestly ambitioned properties. Jared’s grandfather Joseph Kushner, a Holocaust survivor from Belarus, over his lifetime built a small construction company in New Jersey into a real-estate venture that owned and managed some 4,000 low-rise units concentrated in the suburbs of Newark. After taking over the business, Charles expanded Kushner Companies’ holdings to commercial and industrial spaces, but the company’s bread and butter remained the North Jersey apartment complexes bequeathed to him by his father.
The Highland Village complex, along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, is one of Kushner Companies’ largest, a vast maze of lanes and courts lined with rows of short brick-and-siding-fronted homes. Like the other Kushner complexes I visited in Baltimore’s southern and eastern suburbs, it is situated in what was once a predominantly white working-class community, within reasonable commuting distance of the harbor and industrial plants, now defunct, like Bethlehem Steel. In recent decades, many black transplants from the city and Hispanic immigrants have arrived as well, and Highland Village is an unusually integrated place.
The complex, like the others I saw, seemed designed to preclude neighborliness — most of the townhouses lack even the barest stoop to sit out on, and at least one complex has signs forbidding ball-playing (“violators will be prosecuted”). At another complex, kids had drawn a rectangle on the side of a storage shed in lieu of a hoop for their basketball game. The only meeting points at many of the complexes are the metal mailbox stands, the dumpsters and the laundry room. And the only thing that united many of the residents I spoke to, it seemed, was resentment of their landlord.
They complained about Westminster Management’s aggressive rent-collection practices, which many told me exceeded what they had experienced under the previous owners. Rent is marked officially late, they said, if it arrives after 4:30 p.m. on the fifth day of the month. But Westminster recently made paying the rent much more of a challenge. Last fall, it sent notice to residents saying that they could no longer pay by money order (on which many residents, who lack checking accounts, had relied) at the complex’s rental office and would instead need to go to a Walmart or Ace Cash Express and use an assigned “WIPS card” — a plastic card linked to the resident’s account — to pay their rent there. That method carries a $3.50 fee for every payment, and getting to the Walmart or Ace is difficult for the many residents without cars.
Tenants who pay after the fifth are hit with late fees that start around $40 to $50 and escalate from there, with court fees usually added on as well. What upsets residents most, though, are not the fees themselves but that the property managers, instead of putting pink or yellow late notices and court summonses discreetly in mailboxes or under doors, post them in public — on the front doors of townhouse units or on lobby walls or lobby doors of apartment buildings. This bothered even tenants who said they always paid their rent on time. “The whole neighborhood knows,” said Marquita Parmely, a truck driver who pays $1,010 a month to rent a townhouse at Essex Park, near Cove Village. Dareck Cromwell, a retiree living at Carriage Hill, told me: “They put them in the windows for everybody to see, to see your business. That’s not right. You don’t put people’s business out like that.”
Compounding these grievances was Westminster’s maintenance of the properties — or lack thereof. Their complexes comprise hundreds of units, but typically have only four or so workers looking after them. Alishia Jamesson, a 30-year-old Highland Village resident, invited me into the small living room of the $842-a-month townhouse she and her fiancé share with her two children. The room was cluttered with bags from Walmart and Dollar Tree, ketchup packets and supplies for the work Jamesson took up after she lost her cashier’s job at Walmart for missing too many shifts for parenting duties: making personalized tote bags and gift baskets for weddings.
Jamesson showed me three large holes in the walls of the townhouse, which Westminster charged her and her fiancé, Keith Riggs, $150 to fix in October but had not yet repaired. “Every time I ask about drywall they say, ‘Oh, well, we only have one drywall person,’” Riggs told me. There was also black mold spreading around the bathtub, a large brown stain and crack on the wall adjacent to the stove and a gap in the bathroom skylight that allowed in rain and snow. Jamesson told me that the refrigerator hadn’t worked for more than a month before being replaced; her family had lived on canned food and boxed milk.
Complaints about poor upkeep abounded at the other complexes too. At Highland Village, there was the matter of the vacant unit that burned down one night a couple of months ago: Its shell was still standing, attended by nothing but plywood and a tarp. At Essex Park, east of the city, Marquita Parmely, the truck driver, told me she had a mouse infestation that was severe enough that her 12-year-old daughter recently found one in her bed. Parmely also has a 2-year-old with asthma, which is aggravated by allergens in mice droppings. She moved her own bed and other furniture away from the walls to dissuade mice, kept the family’s laundry in tote bags after mice started appearing in the hamper and vacuumed twice a day. Her neighbor told me it took weeks for staff members to replace a rear window that had been shot out by kids with a BB gun.
At the Carroll Park complex in Middle River, Maryland, Jen Jackson showed me a ceiling leak that was causing a mold problem. At the Whispering Woods townhouses nearby, a resident named Nicole, who asked that I not use her last name, told me she had filed unheeded complaints about loose plastic shutters, one of which finally fell off and hit her in the head. (When I visited Nicole again a few weeks later, she told me that Westminster staff had scolded her for speaking with me and told her not to do so again. A large black pickup followed me and a photographer as we walked through the complex until we left.) In the same complex, Renee Cook showed me the large swath of her downstairs ceiling that had collapsed and the mold and mildew beneath the carpet, each resulting from a leak from her neighbor’s (illicit) washer-dryer.
Asked about such conditions, Kushner Companies said it follows industry standards for maintenance staffing and exterminator visits, and that it and its partners had spent $10 million on upgrades across the complexes. “Despite those improvements, issues still arise, given the age of the properties,” said McLean, the chief financial officer. Shortly after I put questions to the company about specific tenants’ complaints, Cook’s ceiling was repaired.
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.”
Jackson said he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Many of the others I spoke with had not voted — in that or any other election. “I’m not a big political person, so I feel like I don’t think I should vote on something I know nothing about,” Alishia Jamesson told me. But eastern Baltimore County was a Trump stronghold, a formerly staunch Democratic territory with many downwardly mobile white voters — and Kushner’s complexes were no exception.
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.”