26 May VP Jon Cartu Writes – The Rent Is Still Due In Kushnerville
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“This is tough,” he said. “It’s tough. But I’m hoping it’ll be over in a month. They say it’s supposed to be over in a month.”
More than a month later, it is not over. And there have been few better places to track the economic unraveling and social stress of the pandemic lockdowns than the large housing complex where Maddox lives, Dutch Village, and a handful of other complexes in the Baltimore area owned by the same company. That’s partly because these complexes are home to exactly the sort of workers who have been most affected by the crisis: both those whose jobs are likeliest to have been eliminated — casino workers, food-service workers, hotel housekeepers — and those whose jobs are likeliest to have been plunged into at-risk overdrive — Amazon warehouse workers, delivery drivers, nursing home aides, cleaners.
Here, there is nary a telecommuting professional to be found. Here, there is no escaping the upheaval. The need in the complexes is so great that one of them, Cove Village, has become a main distribution spot for free food from the Baltimore County school department: Every Monday through Thursday, a truck arrives at Cove Village and parks on Driftwood Court from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Families line up for a breakfast, lunch and snack, with an extra set given out on Thursday to tide kids over on Friday.
There is another reason to track the upheaval in these complexes. It happens that they are owned by the company led until not long ago by the person now tasked with overseeing the federal government’s response to the crisis: Jared Kushner, son-in-law of President Donald Trump. The Kushner Companies, in which Jared still holds a large financial stake, has come under scrutiny in recent years for its litigious pursuit of tenants who allegedly owed back rent or broke leases, and for the poor conditions of many of the units. It was even the subject of a Netflix television documentary that aired just as the lockdowns first went into effect.
But the pandemic has now thrust Kushnerville, which consists of nine complexes in inner-suburban Baltimore County, some with as many as 1,000 units each, into unfamiliar territory. For years, tenants have learned to dread the aggressive tactics of their landlord: late-payment notices and court summons slapped on their doors, late fees and “court costs” and attorney fees added to bills, and, in some cases, even threats of jail time. Disclosure of those tactics led to a class-action lawsuit and a lawsuit by the state attorney general. The Kushner entities have denied wrongdoing. (A judge this year denied the plaintiffs’ bid to form a class, which is on appeal; the attorney general’s suit is ongoing.)
Now, though, that whole apparatus of intimidation has been disabled by the temporary ban on evictions. Without that final stage of the process for forcing payment, the rest of the apparatus has fallen away. There are, for the time being, no late fees, no “court costs,” no summonses on doors. And even without that threat, many tenants are managing to make their rent, for now, thanks partly to enhanced unemployment benefits and the cash payments in the CARES Act.
Instead, everyone is waiting for the next phase, when the safety-net payments ebb, when the evictions resume and when the jobs do or do not come back, while contending with the eternal problems at Kushnerville: maintenance breakdowns, mice infestations and water leaks. And bringing this waiting into particularly stark relief here is the fact that whatever comes next — the strength of the nation’s recovery — will depend partly on what can be accomplished by Jared Kushner himself, in his new role, 40 miles down the road.
The same week as Kevin Maddox was watching his daughter play outside, another young man was out walking at another Kushner-owned complex 15 miles to the east, Whispering Woods. The man, who did not want his name used, was heading to the unit where he lives with his fiancée and their child, from the one where her mother and father live, up the block. Both units were late on April rent. His fiancée’s father was supposed to go back to work on a crew that repaves city roads, but then the pandemic came and shut the work down. He and his fiancée, meanwhile, both had to give up their jobs in the food-service department of a nursing home 20 miles away. The local bus system was cut back so far that they couldn’t get there anymore, and the day care for their child had also shut down.
They had received the same form letter from the Kushner Companies’ property management arm, Westminster Management, that other tenants in the complexes had gotten. It stated that rent was still due on the 5th of every month, but that there would be no late fees for the time being. The company, which declined to comment (or to respond to a list of tenant complaints cited in this article), would also no longer charge an extra fee for paying rent online.
The young man regarded the promised leniency warily. “They act like they care about us so much, but they really don’t,” he said. “They still want the money.” Not that he had any particular animus against the complex’s owner. He did not even know who that was. “Who Jared Kushner?” he said.
Nearby, Steve Williams was walking his dog. He and his wife, who had lived there for two years, had also been unable to pay on time because he hadn’t been working after having a couple of heart attacks and her hours working as a file clerk had just been cut way back as a result of the pandemic. He had also gotten the letters promising leniency from the management office and was also wary of how much stock to put in them, given management’s record. “I’ve been a renter for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “I’ve never seen someone get put out so fast as around here. Thirty days, and you’re gone.” With evictions on hold for the time being, though, he was more worried about an immediate concern: bedbugs. They had been getting worse of late, he said.
The more time one spent at the complexes, the more it seemed as if every other person you talked to had lost their job or had their hours greatly reduced….