Now first son-in-law, Kushner launches P.R. volunteer campaign

BY JOAQUIN COTLER | It’s the beginning of a new chapter for Jared Kushner, one of the closest advisers to President-elect Donald Trump. The rookie political operative, whose fortune lies in his Kushner Properties real estate portfolio, will be shifting his focus to the White House, where his father-in-law plans to live part time starting in January.

Residents of Kushner’s buildings hoped his new career in the public eye would cause him to change what they call his company’s hands-off management style. But despite a brand-new, well-funded public-relations campaign, Kushner — with his real estate management company, Westminster Management — remains a less-than-attentive landlord, in the opinion of more than a few of his tenants. Kushner owns around 50 buildings, most of them in the East Village.

The invite flier for the kickoff event for Westminster Cares.
The invite flier for the kickoff event for Westminster Cares.

The new program, “Westminster Cares,” is a partnership with the Educational Alliance, the venerable Lower East Side neighborhood organization that was founded as a settlement house, and other local nonprofits. On Nov. 17, Westminster Cares held its kickoff on the rooftop of the 14th St. Y, at 344 E. 14th St., which is a part of the Educational Alliance.

The slogan on the event flier was “Mingle. Give Back. Repeat.”

“This new program,” the flier said, “gives you an opportunity to serve your community while getting to know your fellow Westminster neighbors.”

While skeptical of Westminster’s intentions, some tenants attended the get-together hoping to connect with Westminster management about improving the quality of life in Kushner’s buildings. What they found was an open bar, finger food and an opportunity to register to volunteer in the community — but not a forum for discussion.

“I find the timing of this event suspect and its title disingenuous,” said Ted Osborne, a Westminster tenant living at 120 E. Fourth St. “I have friends in the Westminster building next door who spent an entire winter without cooking gas and many freezing nights without heat. Nobody at Westminster City Living seemed to care until tenants took them to court.”

Jennifer Hengen, a longtime rent-stabilized resident of the Westminster-operated 118 E. Fourth St., suffered through substandard conditions for years. Her bathroom ceiling collapsed five times because her super kept replacing the drywall underneath a leaky pipe, rather than calling a plumber to fix it. She was among eight residents in her building awarded a rent settlement for being subjected to unsafe and unlivable conditions.

“Six months later, this is complete news to everybody at Westminster,” Hengen said. “I have had to send the legal documents over to several people, and I’ve had to point out the exact paragraph and subparagraph…and they still think I’ve been squatting for six months. Rent checks are lost half the time. Lease renewals are never generated on time. At first, it felt like bureaucratic harassment, but honestly I’m starting to think it isn’t intentional. I think the place is such a chaotic circus that nothing gets done.  That’s been the kind of care that they show us.”

Jared Kushner.
Jared Kushner.

While Kushner was originally cited directly in the lawsuit and failed to show up at the initial hearing, his name was later dropped from the litigation when Westminster Management was required to pay out thousands of dollars back in April. The case was highly publicized, and drew the attention of local politicians.

“Landlords are obligated to provide a reasonable standard of living for tenants regardless of their status as rent-regulated or market-rate,” Assemblymember Deborah Glick said back in March. “Tenants deserve the best protection under the law and should not be forced to suffer under the weight of an abusive landlord.”

Glick, a longtime advocate for tenants rights, has been a vocal opponent of phony renovation and construction as a harassment technique for nearly three decades. She even introduced a bill to change the definition of landlord abuse.

“I fight for rent regulation and continue to fight for tenants’ rights,” she said.

Perplexing several Westminster tenants, Glick attended the kickoff event.

Glick said while Westminster “may not be the best people in the world,” she was there to show support for the volunteers — essential in the new political climate.

“The Educational Alliance could face major, major changes,” Glick said. “Any organizations providing social or educational programming are very concerned — and should be. One thing people can do is volunteer.”

Glick said she was there in solidarity with the Educational Alliance, echoing the words of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who on Nov. 10 encouraged Americans concerned about impending social cutbacks to pick a cause and support it.

“Volunteering is a way to say, ‘We’re making these groups stronger.’ This is one way we’re going to have our voice heard,” the senator said.

Volunteering and community organizing are what won the E. Fourth St. tenants their settlement earlier this year. They formed the 118 E. Fourth St. Tenant Association and created the community blog “Occupy E. 4th Street,” and — after having endured long-term harassment — were finally vindicated in court. But Hengen said Westminster’s efficiency on repairs has not changed.

“I have to say, since the legal settlement they have been exuberantly friendly…just clueless,” she said. “They recognized the tenants are a community — a force — and we’re helping each other out. But if you want to see how much ‘Westminster cares,’ just check out their Yelp reviews.”

A Westminster spokesperson said, “Last week’s event was an opportunity for residents to come together as a launch for Westminster Cares, a new initiative that will connect our residents to volunteer projects in the community. We’ll be rolling out a full schedule, including projects to help seniors, children and individuals with special needs in the East Village.”

The spokesperson said Westminster had more than 20 staff members at the event who were available to, and, in fact, did discuss issues with tenants.

Asked about partnering with Westminster, an Educational Alliance spokesperson, said, “Educational Alliance has programs for all members of our Lower East Side community. We appreciate our volunteers and visitors who want to learn more about what we do and how we serve this diverse community.”