To catch a Kushner: False filings can open door to harassment

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | MaryAnn Siwek’s ceiling caved in — twice. Her bathroom ceiling did, too. There was water damage, dust in the hallway and ongoing construction late into the night during the peak of the chaos after the Kushner Companies bought her building in 2013.

Siwek lives in a rent-regulated apartment at 170 E. Second St., and the shoddy, unsafe construction began soon after Jared Kushner’s company purchased the building, according to her.

Three years later, Kushner’s father-in-law, Donald Trump, became president. Meanwhile, today, the Kushner Companies’ activities continue to raise red flags.

Siwek believes, as do other tenants-rights organizations, that the disruptive construction was the Kushner Companies’ effort to push rent-regulated tenants out of the building in order to raise the rent and fill the apartments with market-rate tenants.

But the reason Kushner Companies got away with much of the behavior could, in part, have to do with misrepresenting how many rent-regulated tenants were living in its buildings.

In more than 80 construction-permit applications filed by Jared Kushner’s company, the company reportedly falsely said that more than 300 apartments in its real-estate portfolio were not rent-regulated, when in fact they were.

Recently, the Housing Rights Initiative, a housing watchdog group, found that the Kushner Companies falsified 80 applications for construction permits across 34 buildings in New York City between 2013 and 2016, as first reported by the Associated Press last month. Several of those buildings were in the East Village, including Siwek’s. The company said there were no rent-regulated apartments in the buildings, when there were actually more than 300.

The inaccurate filing of how many rent-regulated tenants the buildings had could well have helped the Kushner Companies skirt oversight from the city’s Department of Buildings. When construction complaints are sent to D.O.B., the department will direct the complaints to its Tenant Harassment Task Force — particularly, if the units are rent-regulated.

“Tenant harassment is almost always aimed at rent-regulated apartments,” said Brandon Kielbasa, director of organizing and policy at the Cooper Square Committee, a local housing organization that works with residents to preserve affordable housing. The specific kind of falsification that the Kushner Companies was caught doing, Kielbasa said, is often indicative of what is known as “construction as harassment.”

“It’s not just a box on a piece of paper,” he said, referring to how landlords fill out the forms. In fact, landlords are more readily able to get away with “turning the building against the tenants” with psychologically and physically threatening forms of harassment — like what Siwek put up with in Kushner’s E. Second St. building — if they misidentify apartments as non-rent-regulated.

But the Kushner Companies dispute that there were falsifications of any kind.

“If any forms were filed that contained ministerial errors, it was unintentional and corrected as soon as found,” a spokesperson for the company in an e-mail. The D.O.B. filings are outsourced to third parties and reviewed by independent counsel, according to the company. The error, the company added, had no financial benefit to Kushner Companies.

“This is trying to create an issue where none exists,” the spokesperson said.

In an effort to curb landlord harassment, a dozen new tenant-protection laws were recently passed by the City Council. One of them, spearheaded by Councilmember Margaret Chin, is expected to increase D.O.B. oversight by giving the department the authority to audit and inspect one out of every four buildings in which 25 percent of the units are rent-regulated. The new law also essentially bars landlords with a history of harassment from self-certifying any documents.

The overall set of multiple new laws is an effort to combat a deep-rooted issue that goes beyond the Kushner Companies.

“While I’m glad the Kushner Companies is being held accountable for falsifying dozens of documents to use construction as harassment to evict innocent tenants, it only scratches the surface of a growing problem,” Chin said. “The abuse of self-certification by predatory landlords touches all corners of the city, and hits hardest in the neighborhoods already under siege by the affordability crisis.”

The law, Chin said, is “one tool that is now available for tenants to fight back against illegal construction at the hands of Kushner Companies and other unscrupulous landlords.”

The Stand for Tenant Safety Coalition was critical in pushing for the legislative package.

“I’m committed to making sure tenants know these protections exist,” she added.

Tenants living in Kushner’s properties echoed that sentiment. Without organizing by tenants associations or working with the Stand for Tenant Safety Coalition or the Cooper Square Committee, many fear they would have been pushed out of their rent-regulated units.

Before Kushner Companies bought the building he lives in, 120 E. Fourth St., Ted Osbourne dealt with harassment from a previous landlord. He managed to hold onto the rent-regulated unit through the previous construction harassment, but he and other tenants organized in order to secure “ironclad” leases, he said.

“We were absolutely ready for [Kushner],” said Osbourne, who has lived there since 1989. A purge of rent-regulated tenants in that particular building happened prior to the Kushner Companies entering the picture. But Kushner “certainly cannot claim lack of knowledge or ‘oops,’” added Osbourne, who is a Cooper Square Committee board member and tenant leader for the STS campaign.

In order to enforce the 12 new laws, D.O.B. is hiring 72 new inspectors and other staff members, according to the department. Another targeted program that began last September inspects active construction jobs at rent-regulated buildings. The department said it issued 547 violations for up to $25,000 worth of fines since the program’s inception.

“We won’t tolerate landlords who use construction to harass tenants — no matter who they are,” D.O.B. said in a statement. “Landlords have a legal and moral responsibility to keep their buildings safe, and we will use every resource to fight bad actors who don’t live up to those obligations.”

Siwek, who has been offered a relatively low $10,000 buyout and moving fees to leave, has no intention to vacate her unit. She has lived in the building for 34 years.

“If you’re a landlord, you have a responsibility to your tenants and the welfare of our apartments,” she said. Though the major construction issues have since quieted down, there are still problems with the building, from leaky ceilings to gas issues. At the end of the day, she said, “We still live in these shitty apartments.”

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