Credit Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
Jared Kushner’s Other Real Estate Empire
Baltimore-area renters complain about a property owner they say is
neglectful and litigious. Few know their landlord is the president’s son-in-law.
This article is a collaboration between The Times and ProPublica, the independent nonprofit investigative-journalism organization.
The townhouse on High Seas Court in the Cove Village development, in the Baltimore suburb of Essex, was not exactly the Cape Cod retreat that its address implied: It was a small unit looking onto a parking lot, the windows of its two bedrooms so high and narrow that a child would have had to stand on a chair to see out of them. But to Kamiia Warren, who moved into the townhouse in 2004, it was a refuge, and a far cry from the East Baltimore neighborhood where she grew up. “I mean, there were bunny rabbits all hopping around,” she told me recently.
In the townhouse next door lived an older woman with whom Warren became friendly, even doing her grocery shopping once in a while. But over the course of a few months, the woman started acting strangely. She began accosting Warren’s visitors. She shouted through the walls during the day. And at night she banged on the wall, right where Warren kept the bassinet in which her third child slept, waking him up.
Warren sent a letter reporting the problem to the complex’s property manager, a company called Sawyer Realty Holdings. When there was no response, she decided to move out. In January 2010, she submitted the requisite form giving two months’ notice that she was transferring her Section 8 voucher — the federal low-income subsidy that helped her pay the rent — elsewhere. The complex’s on-site manager signed the form a week later, checking the line that read “The tenant gave notice in accordance with the lease.”
So Warren was startled in January 2013, three years later, when she received a summons from a private process server informing her that she was being sued for $3,014.08 by the owner of Cove Village. The lawsuit, filed in Maryland District Court, was doubly bewildering. It claimed she owed the money for having left in advance of her lease’s expiration, though she had received written permission to leave. And the company suing her was not Sawyer, but one whose name she didn’t recognize: JK2 Westminster L.L.C.
Warren was raising three children alone while taking classes for a bachelor’s degree in health care administration, and she disregarded the summons at first. But JK2 Westminster’s lawyers persisted; two more summonses followed. In April 2014, she appeared without a lawyer at a district-court hearing. She told the judge about the approval for her move, but she did not have a copy of the form the manager had signed. The judge ruled against Warren, awarding JK2 Westminster the full sum it was seeking, plus court costs, attorney’s fees and interest that brought the judgment to nearly $5,000. There was no way Warren, who was working as a home health aide, was going to be able to pay such a sum. “I was so desperate,” she said.
If the case was confounding to Warren, it was not unique. Hundreds like it have been filed over the last five years by JK2 Westminster and affiliated businesses in the state of Maryland alone, where the company owns some 8,000 apartments and townhouses. Nor was JK2 Westminster quite as anonymous as its opaque name suggested. It was a subsidiary of a large New York real estate firm called Kushner Companies, which was led by a young man whose initials happened to be J.K.: Jared Kushner.
Kushner’s largest concentration of multifamily units is in the Baltimore area, where the company controls 15 complexes in all — which, if you assume three residents per unit, could be home to more than 20,000 people. All but two of the complexes are in suburban Baltimore County, but they are only “suburban” in the most literal sense. They sit along arterial shopping strips or highways, yet they are easy to miss — the Highland Village complex, for example, is beside the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, but the tall sound barriers dividing it from the six-lane highway render its more than 1,000 units invisible to the thousands traveling that route every day.
The complexes date mostly from the 1960s and ’70s, when white flight from the city was creating a huge demand for affordable housing in Baltimore County. They were meant to exude middle-class respectability — unglamorous but safe and pleasant enough, a renter’s Levittown. Since then, however, they have slipped socioeconomically, along with the middle class itself, into the vast gray area of the modern precariat — home to casino workers, distribution-warehouse pickers, Uber drivers, students at for-profit colleges. Although most of the tenants I met in a series of recent visits to the complexes pay their own rent, ranging from about $800 to $1,300, some of them receive Section 8 assistance, as Kamiia Warren did; Baltimore County has no public housing for a population of more than 825,000, so these and similar complexes have become the de facto substitute.
At the time of the 2012 Baltimore purchase, Kushner raved about the promise of the low-end multifamily market. “It’s proven over the last few years to be the most resilient asset class, and at the end of the day, it’s a very stable asset class,” he told Multifamily Executive. He said things were proceeding well in the Midwestern complexes he purchased a year earlier. “It was a lot of construction and a lot of evictions,” he said. “But the communities now look great, and the outcome has been phenomenal.”
Kamiia Warren still had not paid the $4,984.37 judgment against her by late 2014. Three days before Christmas that year, JK2 Westminster filed a request to garnish her wages from her in-home elder-care job. Five days earlier, Warren had gone to court to fill out a handwritten motion saying she had proof that she was given permission to leave Cove Village in 2010 — she had finally managed to get a copy from the housing department. “Please give me the opportunity to plead my case,” she wrote. But she did not attach a copy of the form to her motion, not realizing it was necessary, so a judge denied it on Jan. 9, on the grounds that there was “no evidence submitted.”
The garnishing started that month. Warren was in the midst of leaving her job, but JK2 Westminster garnished her bank account too. After her account was zeroed out, a loss of about $900, she borrowed money from her mother to buy food for her children and pay her bills. That February — five years after she left Cove Village — Warren returned to court, this time with the housing form in hand, asking the judge to halt garnishment. “I am a single mom of three and my bank account was wiped clean by the plaintiff,” she pleaded in another handwritten request. “I cannot take care of my kids when they snatch all of my money out of my account. I do not feel I owe this money. Please have mercy on my family and I.” She told me that when she called the law office representing JK2 Westminster that same day from the courthouse to discuss the case, one of the lawyers told her: “This is not going to go away. You will pay us.”
The judge denied Warren’s request without explanation. And JK2 Westminster kept pressing for the rest of the money, sending out one process server after another to present Warren with legal papers. Finally, in January 2016, the court sent notice of a $4,615 lien against Warren — a legal claim against her for the remaining judgment. Warren began to cry as she recounted the episode to me. She said the lien has greatly complicated her hopes of taking out a loan to start her own small assisted-living center. She had gone a couple of years without a bank account, for fear of further garnishing. “It was just pure greed,” she said. “It was unnecessary.” I asked why she hadn’t pushed harder against the judgment once she had the necessary evidence in hand. “They know how to work this stuff,” she replied. “They know what to do, and here I am, I don’t know anything about the law. I would have to hire a lawyer or something, and I really can’t afford that. I really don’t know my rights. I don’t know all the court lingo. I knew that up against them I would lose.”
A search for “JK2 Westminster” in the database of Maryland’s District Court system brings back 548 cases in which it is the plaintiff — and that does not include hundreds of other cases that have been filed in the name of the company’s individual complexes.
A vast majority of these cases have been filed by a single small law firm in the Baltimore suburb of Owings Mills. The law office of Jeffrey Tapper specializes in “collections” work, with an emphasis on landlord-tenant cases. It has represented several other real estate management companies, including Sawyer, which retains a stake in many of the Kushner complexes.
In April, I drove to Owings Mills in hopes of speaking to Tapper. As I waited for him by reception, I overheard an assistant making a call about a new case, saying that the firm would continue to pursue one tenant even if the other person on the lease had filed for bankruptcy. Tapper emerged, a man in his mid-60s with white hair, a paunch and a large smartphone clipped to his belt. Our interview was brief. “I’m not having any conversation with you that has to do with one of my clients,” he said. “I’m not helping you with any of whatever you’re trying to do.”
In the cases that Tapper has brought to court on behalf of JK2 Westminster and individual Kushner-controlled companies, there is a clear pattern of Kushner Companies’ pursuing tenants over virtually any unpaid rent or broken lease — even in the numerous cases where the facts appear to be on the tenants’ side. Not only does the company file cases against them, it pursues the cases for as long as it takes to collect from the overmatched defendants — often several years. The court docket of JK2 Westminster’s case against Warren, for instance, spans more than three years and 112 actions — for a sum that amounts to maybe two days’ worth of billings for the average corporate-law-firm associate, from a woman who never even rented from JK2 Westminster. The pursuit is all the more remarkable given how transient the company’s prey tends to be. Hounding former tenants for money means paying to send out process servers who often report back that they were unable to locate the target. This does not deter Kushner Companies’ lawyers. They send the servers back out again a few months later.
In March 2009, Joan Beverly, a probation agent, signed the lease for her daughter, Lennettea, for a unit at Dutch Village, a complex on the northern edge of Baltimore. Lennettea moved out a year later, several months before her lease was up. Kushner Companies bought Dutch Village more than two years later. In December 2012, JK2 Westminster filed suit in Baltimore County District Court against Beverly, seeking $3,810.16 — several months of rent it said it was owed, plus about $1,000 in repair costs, including $10 for “failure to return laundry room card.”
That February, Lennettea filed a written court notice explaining that her mother, who was dying of pancreatic cancer, was “in terminal hospice care and is not eligible to work.” She added by way of supporting evidence a letter from the hospice provider to Joan Beverly’s bank, explaining her and her husband’s late mortgage payments on their home: “There has been added financial stress because Mrs. Beverly is very ill at this time.” But JK2 Westminster persisted in seeking a hearing on the suit. In March, a district court judge found in favor of the company — a total judgment against Joan of more than $5,500.
Joan died two weeks later. Her husband, Tyrone Beverly, a retired longshoreman, requested that the judgment against his deceased wife be removed but was denied. The case remains open in the court database. Tyrone, who was married to Joan for 32 years, told me that he had assumed the judgment had been dismissed and was unaware that it was still listed as awaiting payment. “They just didn’t treat us fair,” he said.
To read the article in its entirety, click here.