Residents of a high-priced apartment building in Williamsburg are gripped with paranoia following a series of mysterious fires that management is blaming on a resident pyromaniac. The block-long rental building, 184 Kent Avenue, is a century-old warehouse that Jared Kushner, a real estate developer and Donald Trump's son-in-law, bought for $275 million and started converting to condos last April, along with Asher Abehsera's unfortunately monikered LIVWRK and the Boston private equity firm Rockpoint Group.
There's a snag in the condo conversion process, though: previous owner, Jason Halpern's JMH Development, was building condo apartments in the former Austin, Nichols & Co. wholesale grocery distribution center just after the 2008 economic collapse, and amid the fallout, switched to marketing them as luxury rentals. In the process, the company applied for a tax abatement through a program called J51, which made the apartments rent-stabilized until 2025, and thus harder to empty for would-be buyers.
One resident who moved into the building two years ago and, like most tenants we spoke to, asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, said that after Kushner and friend bought the building, many tenants had their rent increased by $400 or $500. This was possible thanks to a loophole in the lease that they had overlooked, which deemed their previous rent preferential, a legal term for a rent-stabilized rate that is below what could technically be charged. A one-bedroom in the building last year rented for $3,500.
184 Kent Avenue (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Also last summer, a flurry of renovations began. Tenants complain that the work has made noise into the evening hours and left hallways, and in some cases, occupied apartments, caked with dust. In recent weeks, holes have been left in walls and ceilings, exposing wires and letting loose particles from between floors. Amenities such as a children's play area have been closed for weeks at a time without compensation, according to tenants. Residents pay a $500 annual fee for access to the spaces.
"Within six months or so of the sale there was a significant portion of tenants moved out," the resident said.
Another tenant estimated that about half of the 339 apartments in the building are now empty and slated for or undergoing renovations to become condos. A 683 square-foot one-bedroom condo in the building is in contract for $892,000, and listings run as high as $2.8 million. Communal fire pits are planned for a courtyard, along with a soundproofed "jam room," and a film screening room. The amenities will complement the building's already-built kids' play room, roof deck, and gym overlooking the East River.
Holes in the ceiling and wall of the area near an elevator leave wires exposed and, tenants fear, unleash health-threatening particles.
A banner across the side of the building facing Kent Avenue reads:
WATERFRONT CONDOMINIUM HOMES
A CENTURY IN THE MAKING
Tenants said that among those renters who remain, many are parents with young children who are concerned that the dust may contain asbestos, and that it is impacting their and their kids' health.
The building has six open Buildings Department violations, five for elevator problems, records show. Residents have recently complained to the city over construction allegedly outside of the scope of permits, and accumulating debris.
"There is a fair amount of resentment," resident Emily Wheeler said.
"It's been a total mess," said a third tenant. "There's been no information about how long [renovation] is going to take or what it's going to look like."
Then there are the fires. The first flared up just before noon on May 27th, a Friday. Residents of one wing of the building who were home at the time evacuated as their halls filled with smoke. They sat on the sidewalk with their pets for hours as firefighters went in—according to an FDNY spokesman the fire was on the fifth floor and took 50 minutes to put out—waiting for the all-clear.
All of the fires took place in the same section of the building, along Kent Avenue between North Third and North Fourth streets, and one tenant who lives there said that residents heard nothing from Kushner subsidiary Westminster Management following the first blaze. In the absence of information, rumors swirled, many focused on the many construction workers coming and going as possible culprits.
"I think most of us assumed it was a one-off," the tenant said. "Then, [three] weeks later to the day, basically the same thing happened."
Supplies outside of Pudge Knuckles after the cafe was flooded by sprinklers during the second fire. (Gothamist)
The fire started around 2:20 p.m., this time on the fourth floor, and again those at home banged on neighbors' doors and fled the smoke. That fire set off sprinklers in the building that flooded a second-floor apartment along with a cafe called Pudge Knuckles on the ground floor.
"It really looked like it was pouring rain from the ceiling in several places, and it continued doing that for several hours and everything got soaked," cafe co-owner Hartje Andresen said. "The paint [on the walls] started bubbling," she added.
Andresen said the coffee shop lost everything, including furnishings custom-made from salvaged wood. A mold-remediation team paid for by the landlords told Andresen and her husband that they would have to replace everything down to the walls.
A month later, the cafe is still closed, and work has proceeded "bit by bit" so the owners can be reimbursed by their insurance company, Andresen said.
"We’re basically building a new cafe in there again," she said, estimating that they will reopen in the next week or two. She continued: "It’s a big blow for us. This is our biggest month, usually. It’s a crucial time for our business."
Firefighters took about a half hour to contain the fire that put the coffee slingers out. Again, there was no word from Westminster for most residents, according to the tenant in the affected area. Between the second and the third fire, management hired security to monitor that hallways, the tenant said. Prior to that, the tenant said that a broken intercom system left the building's several entrances open to anyone who cared to come in.
Fire investigators have determined that the fire that left the cafe flooded was a "rubbish fire." Tenants say all the fires took place in vacant apartments or common areas. None have resulted in injuries.
The third fire was reported as having started on a stove at night on June 20th on the fifth floor, and didn't require FDNY intervention, according to a spokesman. The fourth occurred on June 29th, at about 4:15 p.m. in a trash room on the fifth floor. A security guard put the fire out with a fire extinguisher—because there wasn't one readily available in the hall, he resorted to searching in a vacant apartment, according to the tenant in the affected wing. A recycling bin was melted by the flames, the tenant said.
The Pudge Knuckles coffee shop has been closed for a month due to flooding from fire sprinklers. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
The FDNY recorded the fire as not being brought under control until 48 minutes later. However, an email from property manager David Despres sent at 4:29 p.m. that day stated that management "had a report of smoke in the trash chute" and "[a]s of 4:26 PM, there has been no determination of a fire."
A fifth small fire, unannounced by management, occurred midday the following day, June 30th, on the sixth floor. Investigators determined that it started in a trash compactor closet, an FDNY spokesman said.
Following the last fire, the rumor mill kicked into hyper-drive, in part because of the (at that point) still-limited communication from management, and the feeling among some remaining tenants that the scary but minor conflagrations could be a tactic by Kushner and company to drive them to abandon their protected leases. During one of the later evacuations, the affected tenant says she saw a young neighbor poke her head out a door and say, "This is fucking crazy. I’m breaking my lease and getting out of here."
The whodunit got weirder when tenants received a letter from lawyers for Westminster. Dated July 9th, the letter states that the fires "appear to have been deliberately set" by "an obviously sick individual."
"I didn't know it was possibly arson until we got the letter," resident Emily Wheeler said.
Though the fire department has not concluded its investigation, the lawyers claim that "it appears that the fires were started by a resident of the building." The letter encourages residents to "remain alert and report anything" suspicious. It goes on to say that management has hired new security and asked the doorman contractor to monitor its employees, and that there are colored dots indicating whether apartments are occupied or not (a tenant said this is not true).
Regarding construction issues, the lawyers avoided the issue of dust from gut-renovated apartments in their letter, assuring residents only that surfaces would be covered when work is done in occupied apartments.
"It's unnerving to think that tenants can walk in and set the apartments on fire," said Andresen, who lived in a rental apartment in the building until last year. She reported feeling safe during her three-year tenancy. "I imagine it must be unnerving for people still living there," she said of management's arsonist theory.
One tenant expressed extreme skepticism of the idea, saying, "It's to their advantage to have us think it's one lone person."
Another tenant wrote in an email the fires left the building feeling "unsafe," so much so that, "I was thinking of buying my unit, but now I'm just worried about my safety."
Part of a letter sent by lawyers for Westminster Management to residents of 184 Kent Avenue.
A representative from a public relations firm hired by the development told Gothamist in a statement that the ongoing FDNY investigation makes it "inappropriate to comment further on the cause of the recent fires."
The spokesman, Joey Arak, denied that Westminster is leaning on tenants in pursuit of profits, writing, "Under no circumstances have we engaged in any harassment of tenants or unlawful efforts to drive them out of their homes, and to suggest otherwise is patently false."
Responding to continued complaints, two representatives from Westminster met with tenants on Wednesday night. At the meeting, the reps agreed to test air quality, but explained that it would cost too much to provide daily replacements of plastic floor coverings that accumulate dust, according to a tenant who attended. Management will also replace air conditioner filters on request, and management is in the process of prorating tenants' rent to account for the loss of access to the kids area and a meeting room, Arak said.
The envoys at the meeting also claimed that management had identified the resident responsible for the fires, and said that the person was no longer living in the building. A tenant said that the man in question is no longer around as of the past week or so, and his apartment is being renovated.
Prior to his departure, the man had called police following the fourth fire, and was vocal about the need to investigate and hold the landlords accountable, according to the tenant. At one point, he purportedly said, "We’re going to destroy Jared Kushner by suing him."
Fires aside, Kushner, son of real estate magnate Charles Kushner, has aggressively expanded Kushner Companies' footprint in New York City over the past several years, and in the process has drawn accusations of tenant harassment. Kushner has bought dozens of buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn over the past four years. Forty of them, primarily in the East Village, came mostly emptied of rent-stabilized tenants by previous developers with a knack for sending protected tenants packing. As Gothamist reported in March, tenants left or suffered for reasons including dust from construction, a manager who changed a front-door lock during Hurricane Sandy, chronic leaks, and ceiling collapses.
One building, on East Fourth Street in the East Village, continued to suffer after Kushner took over, with tenants reporting leaks, ceiling collapses, an electrical fire, and nearly five months without gas under Westminster's management.
Jared Kushner, left, has taken a prominent role in the presidential campaign of his father-in-law Donald Trump. (VIEW press/Getty
Kushner is also the publisher of the New York Observer, where his and editor Ken Kurson's involvement in Trump's campaign has alienated and driven out reporters. In addition to endorsing his father-in-law, Kushner has used the pages of his publication to apologize for Trump's use of an anti-Semitic meme labeling Hillary Clinton the "Most Corrupt Candidate Ever," with the words laid over a Star of David and a pile of cash.
Kushner also tried and failed to commission a New Jersey ice cream shop manager to write a take-down of Trump's enemy, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (the paper eventually found a securities lawyer willing to write the piece). Schneiderman is suing Trump, alleging fraud over the get-rich-quick seminars of the now-defunct Trump University, which was not a university.
Kushner has taken an increasingly prominent role in Trump's presidential campaign in recent months—the New York Times described him earlier this month as a "de facto campaign manager." Kushner was reportedly instrumental, along with wife Ivanka Trump and her two brothers, in convincing Donald Trump to fire campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in June.
At a January rally, Trump said, "Jared is a great young man, went to Harvard, very smart, doing a fantastic job in business. He's in the real estate business and has done an amazing job."
The tenant who was home for three of the fires at 184 Kent has a different assessment:
The amount of blame-shifting and denials, and the clear lack of true compassion for people’s lives has been really disturbing from the management. I mean, my brain doesn’t work this way. It really took me to actually be coughing from smoke from a third fire in three weeks to be like, "Okay, this isn’t normal. Okay, something really fucked up is going on."
This story has been updated to indicate that the fire department responded to five fires at 184 Kent Avenue in May and June, not four. The FDNY encourages witnesses with information about the fires to contact fire marshals at (718) 722-3600.