The Beleaguered Tenants of ‘Kushnerville’

Tenants in more than a dozen Baltimore-area rental complexes complain about a property owner who they say leaves their homes in disrepair, humiliates late-paying renters and often sues them when they try to move out. Few of them know that their landlord is the president’s son-in-law.

.. 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.”

.. “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

.. 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.

.. Kushner Companies bought Dutch Village more than two years later.

.. after black mold worsened her son’s asthma, landing him in the hospital twice. After the maintenance crew tried and failed to fix the problem, she got the rental office’s written permission to move out in advance of her lease. But then Kushner Companies bought Carriage Hill, and a year and a half later, in August 2013, JK2 Westminster filed a lawsuit against Hough, seeking $4,068.53.

.. 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

.. 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.

.. instill a sense of fear about violating a lease. “Any landlord takes that into account,” Hertz said. “They know tenants are going to talk to each other. If they say, ‘He’s going to come after you,’ it’s deterrence.”

When Kushner Companies finally responded to my questions about the cases, they essentially affirmed Hertz’s reasoning. As manager for the Baltimore complexes, the company had a “fiduciary obligation” to its ownership partners to collect as much revenue as it could, said Kushner Companies’ chief financial officer, Jennifer McLean, in a written response. She said the company’s legal costs have been “minimal” compared with what it seeks to recover.

.. 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.

.. 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.

.. “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.”

.. 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

.. 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.”

.. Westminster had a lawyer from Tapper’s firm, Andrew Rabinowitz, at the April 25 hearing, which lasted more than three hours — all over less than $500. The next day Rabinowitz was back to defend Westminster against Silver’s criminal complaint over the unfounded eviction. This time, he was more accommodating, perhaps because he realized a reporter was present.

West Bank Settlers Prepare for Clash, With Israeli Government

A flagship of the settler enterprise, Amona is becoming a test of how far Israel’s right-wing government will go to avoid a clash with its constituency and how vested it is in more than 100 outposts built without authorization across the West Bank.

.. Mr. Netanyahu’s government has been working to retroactively legalize dozens of settler outposts that sit on public land. But Amona was built on privately owned Palestinian land, where Israel’s own judiciary insists the state cannot simply rubber-stamp construction.

.. Leafing through a bound folio of maps, photographs and documents from the outpost’s early years, Mr. Buaron pointed out how the state helped provide its infrastructure: a high-voltage power line, Housing Ministry plans to prepare 40 plots for permanent homes, a road.

.. The settlers are pushing for legislation that would force Palestinian owners to accept compensation rather than get their land back, arguing that the current legal strictures could be applied to thousands of settler homes beyond Amona. The attorney general has already ruled out that option, but 25 of the 30 Parliament members from Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party nonetheless signed a petition backing it last month.

.. Mr. Buaron, the Amona leader, said there was nothing stopping Palestinians from coming to work their land, but Mr. Hamed’s wife, Nihad, 56, expressed a widely held fear.

“They would shoot us,” she said, noting that an unarmed man from Silwad was killed by Israeli soldiers in August. “I wouldn’t send my sons.”

.. Abdallah Abu Rahmeh, a Palestinian Authority official who focuses on settlements, saw the Israeli debate as hairsplitting that obscures the depth of the occupation. “It is not up to Israel to determine where each piece of land is going to go in our own country,” he said.