New York City residents may well be accustomed to the upstairs neighbor pushing around their bureaus every night at 2 a.m. sharp. We're also used to frequent jackhammering, pile driving, and Mister Softee jingling. But living under a thick cloud of carcinogen dust from constant construction? With rats scampering in and out of the holes workers left in your walls, and with those workers crashing through your front door whenever they want because someone decided they get passkeys? With unrelenting, aggressive drilling that rumbles the walls and rattles the skull? Those are special circumstances indeed—and according to a new lawsuit, precisely the kind the Kushner Companies engineered at 184 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The alleged plan, according to the Associated Press: To drive tenants out of their rent-stabilized apartments, making room for wealthier buyers with luxury condo budgets.
"Kushner Companies' business model is steeped in illegality, depravity, and unending greed," said Aaron Carr, founder and executive director of Human Rights Initiative, in a press release. HRI and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams announced the $10 million lawsuit on Monday, with 19 plaintiffs signing on. They say that the "Kushner Companies engaged in illegal construction practices," including exposing residents to cancer-causing substances like silica and lead.
As the AP investigation notes, Jared Kushner—formerly a real estate executive; currently a top adviser to his father-in-law President Donald Trump—bought the building with two partners in April 2015. The Austin Nichols House had been converted from warehouse to fancy apartment complex in 2010, and Kushner spent $275 million acquiring it. The goal, according to the AP, was to turn the 338 rent-stabilized units into luxe condos, but because the building housed only nine empty apartments, figuring out how to oust current tenants presented the Kushner Companies with a puzzle. Their alleged solution? Manufacture a chaotic, hazardous, and all-around untenable living situation to free up space.
Kushner Companies reportedly wasted little time uprooting newly installed appliances and sending in construction workers to create an unholy racket. One former resident told the AP that the ceaseless drilling felt like "having a root canal without the physical pain." That same resident also saw her apartment colonized by rats, then flooded. She allegedly had construction workers letting themselves into her apartment without notice.
And amid the intrusions and blowing dust and power tool ruckus came rent hikes: Tenants reportedly weathered $500 monthly increases to stay in their stabilized units. As a result, the AP investigation found, Kushner Companies resold or cleared over 250 apartments, raking in around $155 million over three years.
"The lawsuit filed today by certain current and former tenants of Austin Nichols House is totally without merit and we intend to defend it vigorously," Kushner Companies said in a statement to Gothamist. "The residents of Austin Nichols House were fully informed about the planned renovation and all work was completed under the full supervision by the New York City Department of Buildings and other regulatory agencies, with full permits and with no violations for these claims. Tenants were never pressured to leave their apartments and the market-rate rent stabilization was—and continues to be—complied with under applicable rent guidelines. Any complaints during construction (which was completed in 2017) were evaluated and addressed promptly by the property management team. The property management team is committed to continuing to meet the needs of all residents."
But the dust storm, ear-splitting noise, rodents, and home invasions weren't the full extent of mayhem at 184 Kent Ave. As Gothamist has previously reported, tenants also lost access to some communal amenities for which they'd paid, and then there were the fires: A series of mysterious conflagrations sparked in the summer of 2016 that contributed to the tumult.
When the Kushner Companies purchase rent-stabilized buildings, things have a way of going awry: In 2017, for example, residents of 89 Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights filed a suit against the company for (allegedly) failing to register the units as rent-stabilized after buying the building in 2014. The company reportedly pulled a similar maneuver after acquiring the Williamsburg property at 50 N 1st Street in 2013. And in the East Village, the Kushner Company appears to have allowed a trash pile of "Dickensian" proportions to build up outside 118 East 4th Street, potentially intended as encouragement for tenants to leave.
"This is a company that has shown a brazen disregard for human life and an insatiable obsession with its bottom line," Carr's statement reads. "Kushner Companies is not above the law, but they most certainly have to follow the law."