By Richard Marcantonio, Public Advocates Inc., for CarsonWatch
The public face of that assault? Jared Kushner, Senior White House Advisor and son-in-law of President Trump.
It turns out that Mr. Kushner’s housing investment strategy (“a lot of construction and a lot of evictions,” in his words) goes beyond building luxury condos with tax breaks in places like Jersey City. He also owns 20,000 apartments in 34 complexes in places like Baltimore, Toledo and Pittsburgh. Perhaps 60,000 working class and Section 8 renters call these complexes home.
Kushner calls them something else: cash cows. Or, to use his exact words, “good markets where you can get yield.”
Among the vicious attacks on Kushner tenants that the story documents are hundreds of lawsuits his companies have brought against mostly unrepresented tenants, including those he’s sued for rent they did not owe. [As one landlord’s attorney told MacGillis, the approach is that “‘I’m buying up this property and if I can collect anything, it’s gravy on top.’”] The story also uncovers a pattern of failing to repair health-threatening conditions like toxic black mold, raw sewage leaks, and rodent infestations.
Kushner’s strategies help us see how poverty is manufactured and maintained by hyper-concentrated power. Kamiia Warren, a single mother of three in one of Kushner’s Baltimore complexes is not likely to see her lack of cash as a “state of mind” – U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson’s bizarre definition of poverty. Instead, she can trace it directly to the fact that nothing and no one stopped billionaire Kushner from emptying out her meager bank account and then garnishing her wages, all to pay off a fraudulent default judgment. Nor is Jasmine Cox likely to attribute to her state of mind the fact that she cannot safely cook for her son in a kitchen in which raw sewage is “flowing out of the kitchen sink.”
Who, after all, is going to hold Kushner accountable? Ben Carson, or his boss, the president? Not likely. But there is someone who will, and I’ll get to that shortly.
Kushner’s company is right about one thing, though: its unscrupulous conduct is consistent with “industry standards” today. So the story raises larger questions than the bad behavior of one corporate landlord. In the face of a national rental crisis, the more fundamental questions the story raises are about housing, and about the role of government itself. If housing is a basic human right, as CarsonWatch, the Right to the City Alliance, and many others assert, why are the homes of working people today becoming nothing more than profitable “markets”?
And why is government – at every level from federal to local – subsidizing corporate speculation in housing “markets” instead of ensuring that an affordable and healthy home is available for everyone?
Which brings us back to the question of who it is that will hold the Kushner’s of the world accountable, while ensuring that human rights like housing, healthcare, good jobs, education, and public transportation take priority over rewarding corporate greed and excess.
Part of the extreme power imbalance MacGillis’ story illustrates is the lack of lawyers for the poor. Many of the Kushner tactics he documents are plainly illegal, but decades of cuts to the federal Legal Services Corporation – which Trump’s budget now proposes to eliminate entirely – mean that many tenants do not have the lawyers they need to fight back.
Ultimately, however, it is the clients of these lawyers, the tenants themselves, who hold the key. As union organizer Jane MacAlevy demonstrates in No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford 2016), “a bottom-up model in which workers have primary agency and are understood to be their own lever of liberation” has built the power to win in the past, and can do so again today. An oblique reference to the power of organizing was even to be found in the pages of the New York Times a few days ago, which editorialized that “Community organizers could have helped Kushner tenants like Kamiia Warren of suburban Baltimore, who was sued for moving out of her apartment without giving two months’ notice despite having done so.”
Plenty of groups around the country didn’t need to read the Times to know the role organizers can play in helping renters discover their own power. Don’t count on reading about their work in the Times, but they have been organizing day in, day out across the country to build the collective power to fight back. They are organizing in Florida, where a Right to the City Affiliate, the Miami Workers’ Center, got in Ben Carson’s face in April; in Jersey City, where a newly formed group of neighbors, Evict Trump-Kushner, won a commitment by their mayor to reject Kushner’s demand for big tax breaks to subsidize his luxury condo development; and in New York City, where groups like Community Voices Heard in East Harlem, New York Communities for Change (NYCC), and Right to the City affiliate FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality) in Brooklyn, have catalyzed powerful No Cuts rallies locally, and are planning bigger ones to come.
Connecting up the dots are national networks such as the Right to the City Alliance, with 64 affiliates organizing in 38 cities and 24 states. Right to the City’s Homes for All campaign is a good example of an appropriate response to the likes of Jared Kushner: it aims to take on the corporations whose “interest in property speculation and maximizing quarterly profits undermines our interest in long-term neighborhood stability.”
CarsonWatch, a new mobilization and watchdog effort, is teaming up with and supporting many of these networks, both old and new, which are coming together to tackle the affordable housing crisis and fight back against predatory landlords, deep budget cuts and regressive policies that favor the wealthy. Like Jane McAlevy, we know that real change can only be led by the people who are hit hardest and most directly by the housing crisis.
MacGillis concludes his story (and his follow-up NPR interview) with tenants expressing their surprise upon learning the name of their slumlord. “That Jared Kushner?” one exclaimed. “Oh, my God. And I thought he was the good one.” Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I suspect that Kushner’s tenants will be organizing to fight for their rights as tenants, and for the basic human right to housing. Like the landlord’s attorney MacGillis quotes, we “know tenants are going to talk to each other.” As that story unfolds, CarsonWatch will keep you posted.