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Cost of living: Suit alleges Kushner Co. risked tenants’ health for profits

In charge: Jared Kushner ran his family firm the year it bought the Austin Nichols House, and for several months following the purchase.
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The family real-estate firm of President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner illegally forced rent-stabilized tenants out of a Williamsburg apartment building with construction that exposed occupants, including children, to cancer-causing chemicals, according to a lawsuit filed on Monday.

Nineteen tenants of Kent Avenue’s Austin Nichols House claimed that Kushner Companies — which Kushner ran until his father-in-law took office last January, when he accepted a gig as a senior advisor to the president — put their lives at risk to get them to leave after purchasing the building in 2015, according to an advocate who announced the $10-million suit outside of the Kings County Supreme Court building.

“Kushner Companies exposed dozens of families, including children and even babies, to a toxic-dust storm of lead and lung carcinogens,” said Aaron Carr, a director of tenants-advocacy group Housing Rights Initiative, which started investigating the building between N. Third and N. Fourth streets last year at the request of occupants.

The developer shelled out $275 million for the 338-unit complex with the intention of selling off its apartments as luxury condos, the suit alleges, but its current tenants’ leases for stabilized apartments guarantee renewals, in addition to only modest rent increases, at the end of each rental term.

Consequently, Kushner Companies kicked off a massive gut renovation of the property shortly after acquiring it, falsely claiming the complex was vacant to obtain necessary permits from the Department of Buildings, and using common spaces as staging areas for construction that took place at all hours of the day and night, the tenants claim.

And last year, the firm began work on the pre-WWII building’s facade, releasing a cloud of toxic dust that covered occupants’ clothes, furniture, and even cooking utensils, according to the suit, which alleges tenants now may contract debilitating health conditions that include lung cancer as a result of their exposure.

The alleged forced-eviction plan has already led occupants to vacate 75 percent of the building’s stabilized units since Kushner Companies bought the property, according to an Associated Press report.

And throughout the ordeal, the Buildings Department failed to protect the tenants, according to Carr, who noted the agency did not take any actions against the developer, despite frequent complaints from residents, and the so-called toxic-dust storm that pervaded the complex.

“This was a pre-war building, there was construction dust everywhere, and all the DOB would have had to do was put two and two together and test for lead,” he said. “DOB continues to miss egregious and blatant violations within these buildings.”

An agency spokesman said that its inspectors found no evidence Kushner Companies violated city codes during the property’s dozens of inspections since 2015 — findings officials still stand by today, he said.

“DOB inspectors do not hesitate to take enforcement action when they see improper or unsafe constructi­on,” said Joseph Soldevere.

Hours before Carr unveiled the lawsuit alongside Borough President Adams, the governor’s office announced the state’s Tenant Protection Unit launched its own investigation into the developer’s alleged harassment. But when asked about the state’s probe of the property, Carr blasted Gov. Cuomo as capitalizing on the hard work of his group, arguing the pol — who is running for his third term this year — only cares about tenants’ rights when people are watching.

“There seems to be a propensity here, where anytime a case into the public spotlight, the governor … will react,” he said. “We don’t need a reactive enforcement model, we need a proactive and systematic enforcement model to enforce our laws.”

A Kushner Companies attorney said the lawsuit is without merit, claiming the developer complied with all construction laws and rent guidelines in renovating the property.

“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,” said Emily Wolf. “Tenants were never pressured to leave their apartments, and the rent stabilization was — and continues to be — complied with under applicable guidelines.”

The Williamsburg residents aren’t the Kushner Companies’s only tenants suing the firm — occupants of two Brooklyn Heights buildings the developer purchased from Brooklyn Law School in 2014 also took it to court last year, alleging the owner skirted rent-stabilization laws at both locations.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.
Updated 12:45 pm, July 17, 2018
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