Tenants allege Kushner firm pushed them out of their homes
Twenty current and former residents of one of the largest buildings owned by the Kushner Cos. allege in a $10 million lawsuit that the firm used relentless, noisy construction that exposed them to cancer-causing dust as part of a campaign to get rent-stabilized tenants out and high-priced luxury condo buyers in.
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The lawsuit and a separate state investigation followed an Associated Press story Sunday detailing the business practices of the family firm while it was run by President Donald Trump's son-in-law and now White House adviser Jared Kushner.
More than a dozen tenants described hammering and drilling so loud it drowned out normal conversation, rats crawling through holes, shaking walls, workers with passkeys barging in unannounced, and so much dust that it covered beds and clothes in closets. They say those conditions, along with rent hikes of $500 or more a month, made living there unbearable.
"They won, they succeeded," says Barth Bazyluk, who left apartment C606 with his wife and baby daughter in December. "You have to be ignorant or dumb to think this wasn't deliberate."
The AP investigation found that over the past three years, more than 250 rent-stabilized apartments — 75 percent of the building — were either emptied or sold as the Kushner Cos. was converting the building known as the Austin Nichols House in the hip Williamsburg section of Brooklyn to luxury condos. Those sales so far have totaled more than $155 million, an average of $1.2 million per apartment.
The turnover was significantly higher than city averages for coveted rent-stabilized buildings.
The Kushner Cos. said in a statement to the lawsuit is "totally without merit." It acknowledged it received some complaints about construction during major renovations, which ended in December 2017, but said that it responded to them immediately and many tenants simply moved out after rents increased under what is allowed under the law.
"Tenants were never pressured to leave their apartments," said the company, which also noted that city inspectors were sent out many times and found no violations.
When Jared Kushner and two partners bought the former Wild Turkey bourbon warehouse for $275 million in April 2015, they made it clear they wanted to convert the building's 338 apartments — all of them rent-stabilized — into condos. All but nine were occupied, and other than maxing out rent increases, developers have few tools if they want to get tenants out.
Months after the purchase, the Kushners began extensive renovations, ripping out appliances, floors and countertops that had been installed five years before.
"There were consistently people in the hallway early, 8 or so, banging on things, taking down walls," says tech salesman Marcus Carvalho, who left the building in December. "I didn't want to spend another minute in that construction zone, not at all."
A few weeks after Carvalho left, Jane Coxwell couldn't take the noise anymore either.
"It was drilling from every direction," says Coxwell, a chef who works late nights and writes at home during the day. "It was impossible to take a call. You could never sit and read a book or get any work done."
Dust samples taken in May by consultants Olmsted Environmental Services turned up dangerously high levels of lead and crystalline silica, which can cause cancer.
The $10 million lawsuit alleges the Kushners, by failing to take proper precautions, exposed residents to a "cloud of toxic smoke and dust."
The Kushner Cos. disputed the findings of the environmental report, alleging it appeared to be an updated version of a report prepared several years ago.
Ronan Conroy says he complained to the Kushners several times, walking down to the sales office once to confront management in person.
"Your strategy is to get people out, right?" Conroy recalls asking a staffer at the desk. He says the man basically shrugged, offered no dispute, then said, "We can let you out of your lease."
Frustrated and facing a big rent hike, Conroy left in early 2016.
"My strong impression is they made the building as unlivable as possible so they could get everyone out of there."
Burke reported from San Francisco. AP researchers Jennifer Farrar and Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.
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