Jared Kushner is a bad landlord, and the world ought to know. By considering how he runs his business, we may learn something about the man, and his father-in-law. Kushner made his money through questionable real-estating, and covers it up with Brooks Brothers. That’s the long and short of it. Kushner’s housing is as shady as Donald’s Presidency.
The Sidney Hillman Foundation, a media group, gives prizes for excellence in journalism. They just awarded their June prize to the outlet Pro Publica, which raised hue and cry about Kushner’s business practices. In this reign of witches, it may seem odd to focus on the dubious practices of one rich man. This is a world full of Russian games, after all. But in shining light on one dark corner, Pro Publica has done us all a great service. “MacGillis has unmasked the president’s closest advisor as a slumlord,” Lindsay Beyerstein (a Hillman judge) wrote.
The properties that Kushner owns are known as “Kushnervilles.” Alec MacGillis of Pro Publica wrote the original Kushnerville stories for the New York Times Magazine. He titled his feature “Jared Kushner’s Other Real Estate Empire.” MacGillis unspools a sad tale. It is a dismal account, and an angering one.
As the Hillman Foundation writes in their award brief:
Jared Kushner presents himself as the owner of gleaming Manhattan properties, but MacGillis discovered that the president’s son-in-law and close advisor also presides over much seedier complexes in Baltimore.
The details are stomach-turning.
As many as 20,000 people live in these “Kushnervilles,” where residents report rat infestations, backed up pipes, and in one case, maggots wriggling up from a sewage-sodden carpet. The company is notorious for charging tenants exorbitant fees for repairs that go undone, while publicly humiliating anyone who falls even slightly behind on their rent. The company also refuses to accept rent checks and forces tenants to shell out $3.50 a month to pay through a private service.
As MacGillis writes in his original piece:
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.
“But,” MacGillis reminds us:
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.
Every titanic business empire invites exploitation of one kind or another: Standard Oil jumps to mind. To be ethical in enterprise requires the most exacting care. Without diligence, fair dealing can fade. It’s like being swaddled in plastic tarps: the more layers of managing, the more human feeling recedes. But the Trump family lifts this problem to the next level of horrid. They don’t care, and it shows. If you’re nasty and you know it, clap your hands.
The story of Kushnerville is the story of the Trump brand. We all know how our Businessman-President presents himself. He is supposedly the embodiment of gleaming spires and high-rises. Yet this is a deliberate sales tactic. Skyscrapers and penthouses are clean, hygienic, sexy. They don’t remind you of exploitation, and why would they? But oppression is the name of the game where the Trumps are concerned. Hillman again:
Kushner has turned his low-income tenants into cash cows with a legal strategy that is considered over-the-top even by sharp-elbowed industry standards. Court records show that Kushner’s lawyers indiscriminately drag tenants to court for lease-breaking, even when the tenants are in the legal right. MacGillis characterized the company’s approach to litigation as an “assembly line production,” where self-representing tenants are routinely steamrolled in court, even when the law is on their side. And the company pursues the cases for as long as it takes to collect – even a few hundred dollars – often over several years.
By using the sleek glass tower angle, Trump and Kushner are taking a page from Eighties and Nineties Manhattan megacapitalist playbook. Tycoons like Donald and Jared present their wealth and their person as somehow floating above the realities of exploitation. As if they jumped from poverty to stainless master-building without dirtying their hands. But this is make-believe. We know how they got their boodle. By now it should be abundantly clear to the world how the Trump family does business.
It is no crime to start small in business, any more than it is to be born small. That is how all of us begin. What is a sin is to do shoddy jobs, and to hurt people to make your fortune. Kushner is no longer CEO of his real-estate business. But he maintains majority ownership. And he helps to oversee an Executive Branch which handles, among other factors, federal housing policy. The Trump family has conflicts of interest. Hardly news. But the depth and cynicism of these ties is breathtaking.
This isn’t just about Kushner’s greed. The Kushner-Trump hustle is about a way of life. Everything about Trump, and Kushner, and modern conservatism, has this stink of the half-worked, the poorly-done. The fly-by-night is their M.O.; the half-ass job their religion.
Not only does the rage-inducing story of Kushnerville tell us something about the Presidential family and their business—it reminds us of how rapacious postmodern capitalism is. America is supposedly some kind of golden garden for businessmen and women. But the current version of this system does not build value, only profit. It crushes the small tradesman and rewards the big wheel. This economic system cannot plant trees, only pick withered fruit. It cannot build great ships, only lease them cheap from foreign ports. It constructs nothing except explanations. Consider what Jared Kushner is, and the system which produced him, and draw your own conclusions. We must tear down, to build rightly.