STEPHEN JANIS: This is Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. Wealth and equality is a theme of the Trump Administration and the story about how that works and how they make money off the backs of middle class people starts right here.
If there is one aspect of the Trump Administration that deserves more attention, it would be just how much his inner circle represents a growing income equality that in part divides a country. Case in point is Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Like the President, he is linked to hundred of millions of dollars in real estate holdings, but it’s not just about luxury condos and gleaming towers. Kushner has made much of his fortune renting to low income residents in modest apartment complexes, and it is how he acquired this wealth that is the subject of a recently filed class action lawsuit.
TENEA SMITH: It’s important to me because everyone in my neighborhood, all of the tenants, we are all working class citizens just struggling to make ends meet, so it’s unfair to us that we’re forced to pay a bunch of fees up front right away.
STEPHEN JANIS: According to the lawsuit, Kushner has enriched himself unjustly at the expense of his tenants by charging improper fees to working people the Trump Administration purports to represent.
MATT HILL: These fees do pile up, especially when the rent is taken to pay off the fees, which then Westminster says, “Oh, well your rent is late because we took your rent to pay off the fees so we can charge you some more fees and additional fees.”
STEPHEN JANIS: The story of how this works starts here at a small nondescript apartment complex called Dutch Village in northeast Baltimore. It is one of 17 developments across the state of Maryland owned by Kushner. Residents here are middle class.
TONIO: Every month, it’s 40, 50 eviction notices on people’s door and everybody around here work. It ain’t like we paying thousands of dollars for rent, you feel what I’m saying? I know the people paying they rent to keep a roof over their kids head.
STEPHEN JANIS: And hardworking and making just enough to get by.
And this lawsuit is about fees. They add a lot of fees on if you’re a little bit late. Is that something …
TONIO: It’s like $80. An $80 late fee or something like that.
STEPHEN JANIS: How does that affect people here?
TONIO: Most people working and try to budget they money. Most people working two jobs nowadays to survive and somebody with an $80 late fee, that could be coming up … That’s taking food from my kids’ mouth.
STEPHEN JANIS: But that didn’t stop Kushner from tacking on fees for late payment of rent that wasn’t, in fact, late and then using those fees to start eviction.
JANE SANTONI: Well, they end up paying more money then they need to pay and money that’s not legal. For example, the court costs if they don’t pay by the end of the fifth, they’ll say, “You have to pay $30 in court costs.” Well, the court hasn’t awarded any court costs, there may not even be a court filing, but they say now unless you pay this, we’re going to file an eviction notice. Then they’ll slap 5% on top of that, so the numbers just keep churning and churning and churning.
STEPHEN JANIS: In fact, according to the plaintiffs, landlords wreak havoc on low income residents in Baltimore, filing 155,000 payment actions against tenants resulting in 7,000 evictions annually.
SPEAKER: Ultimately, being able to file eviction actions on fees that you shouldn’t be able to and win them sometimes is because there are so many of these actions being filed, there isn’t enough representation. Tenants don’t know their rights and often courts don’t want to take the time to look more deeply into a case. We’ve overloaded the rent courts with so many cases.
STEPHEN JANIS: The Kushner real estate empire is no stranger to accusations of abusive practices. An investigation by Pro Publica and the New York Times found [inaudible 00:03:21] ruthlessly pursued former tenants for rent. They say they did not. Oh, and recently a Kushner controlled property was sued for overcharging rent in New York. We attempted to reach Kushner for comment but were unsuccessful. But for the tenants in Baltimore, the concern is about fairness, that their hard earned money doesn’t enrich a man who doesn’t deserve it.
TONIO: It’s hard out here. We got a President that’s crazy, you know what I mean? Don’t nobody love nobody. The people that’s trying to live right and do right is people like him that own properties that seem like you stagnating us, you feel me? You keeping me right there. I’m trying to grow. I ain’t trying to stay here forever.
STEPHEN JANIS: This is Stephen Janis and Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.