Peace in Middle East? How about fixing the heat? Kushner tenants skeptical

BY JOAQUIN COTLER | President-elect Donald Trump hopes that — where so many others have failed before — his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law, using his political savvy and business connections, will be able to bring peace to the Middle East.

Jared Kushner, the young real estate mogul from Livingston, N.J., is being considered for a “special envoy” position, The New York Times reported last week. This role, an unofficial post within Trump’s administration, would specifically task Kushner, 35, with making peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

“He knows the region, knows the people, knows the players,” Trump said of Kushner during an interview with Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and Times editors and reporters. “I’ve had a lot of, actually, great Israeli businesspeople tell me, you can’t do that, it’s impossible,” he continued. “I disagree, I think you can make peace.”

Jared Kushner, landlord, newspaper publisher, presidential adviser...Middle East savior?
Jared Kushner, landlord, newspaper publisher, presidential adviser…Middle East savior?

Kushner, Trump’s apparent go-to person for advice on U.S.-Israeli relations, wrote his father-in-law’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, back in March. In that address, Trump said that Obama and Clinton have treated Israel “very, very badly,” and he also echoed some historically Republican talking points.

“We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem,” Trump promised, “and we will send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the State of Israel.”

Kushner reportedly wrote the speech with help from the New York Observer’s then-editor, Ken Kurson, a longtime critic of the Obama administration’s treatment of Israel. Once headed by notorious Trump antagonist Graydon Carter, the New York Observer was purchased by Kushner in 2006. The paper endorsed Trump in the G.O.P. primary, but did not endorse him in the general election. (It was recently announced that the New York Observer would drop its print edition; it is now just called Observer.)

A Harvard graduate, Kushner has powerful connections in the business world, including PayPal founder and investor Peter Thiel and Alibaba founder Jack Ma; his own wife, Ivanka Trump; and his venture-capitalist brother, Josh Kushner. Jared Kushner’s contacts in Silicon Valley enabled him to revamp the Trump campaign’s data analytics. He hired audience-targeting specialists, including the conservative Cambridge Analytica, to identify voter subgroups, and rebuilt Trump’s social-media campaign. According to Forbes, the team raised more than $250 million during the last four months of the campaign, largely from targeted outreach, after Kushner took the digital reins this past summer.

In an effort to counter criticism that Trump’s campaign pandered to white nationalists and anti-Semites, Kushner penned an op-ed for his Observer, “The Donald Trump I Know,” in hopes of convincing the world otherwise.

Leon Neyfakh, now a staff writer at Slate, began working for the Observer in 2007 under Kushner. He believes that the Observer’s owner, whom he calls “dumb but calculating, cruel but fundamentally feeble,” co-opted the paper when he became involved with the campaign. Neyfakh described the newspaper’s content around election season as a “kind of deadening background noise meant to drown out the boss’s evil deeds,” and he described Kushner’s involvement in Trump’s bid for president as “the opportunistic gamble of a crow pursuing the shiniest object in sight.” That pursuit kept many of Kushner’s most vulnerable clients in the dark. While Kushner was writing Trump’s Israel speech, Kushner’s real estate company Westminster Management was in and out of court over its inability — or refusal — to address basic living conditions in several of the young mogul’s East Village buildings, including long-term lack of services, including heat and cooking gas, plus electrical outages. For all his digital-media savvy, Kushner had a hard time setting up a system that worked for the people living in his buildings.

According to several tenants, even after Westminster lost in court, it still failed to provide adequate service for Kushner’s lower-income residents, and treated them like second-class citizens. David DuPuis, a longtime rent-stabilized resident of a Kushner-owned building, 118 E. Fourth St., mentioned that Westminster introduced a Web payment system that’s only available to high-rent tenants.

“They only allow the market-rate tenants to use it,” DuPuis said, “not the rent-stabilized or senior citizens.” He said that “losing” rent checks is one of the many ways Westminster could harass tenants like him and his neighbor Jen Hengen — both of whom took Westminster to court and won, after enduring what they called unlivable conditions for six months.

“As rent-stabilized tenants,” Hengen said, “we endured a lot of ignoring and contempt, because they really wanted to make room for tenants who would pay $3,000 a month for one of our studios.”

“They separate us as people — not the sort of actions that come in handy when making peace deals,” DuPuis said, referring to Kushner’s possible new role in the Middle East.

DuPuis and Hengen have been public with their statements in the past, in hopes of bringing attention to the plight of many of Kushner’s tenants. But now Hengen is concerned about speaking out.

“I’m a little nervous with Trump in charge,” she said. “I have a spotless record professionally, but who knows what dirt will come from speaking to media? Giuliani and all the rest — it’s a scary time for New York.”

But DuPuis is less apprehensive about voicing his opinion.

“I hear from the market-rate tenants that the Web site is mismanaged at best,” he said. “Lost receipts. No one arrives to make repairs. They can’t manage a Web site, so I’m not sure how he will manage the Middle East.”