The garnishing started that month. Warren was in the midst of leaving her job, but JK2 Westminster garnished her bank account too. After her account was zeroed out, a loss of about $900, she borrowed money from her mother to buy food for her children and pay her bills. That February — five years after she left Cove Village — Warren returned to court, this time with the housing form in hand, asking the judge to halt garnishment. "I am a single mom of three and my bank account was wiped clean by the plaintiff," she pleaded in another handwritten request. "I cannot take care of my kids when they snatch all of my money out of my account. I do not feel I owe this money. Please have mercy on my family and I." She told me that when she called the law office representing JK2 Westminster that same day from the courthouse to discuss the case, one of the lawyers told her: "This is not going to go away. You will pay us."
The judge denied Warren's request without explanation. And JK2 Westminster kept pressing for the rest of the money, sending out one process server after another to present Warren with legal papers. Finally, in January 2016, the court sent notice of a $4,615 lien against Warren — a legal claim against her for the remaining judgment. Warren began to cry as she recounted the episode to me. She said the lien has greatly complicated her hopes of taking out a loan to start her own small assisted living center. She had gone a couple of years without a bank account, for fear of further garnishing. "It was just pure greed," she said. "It was unnecessary." I asked why she hadn't pushed harder against the judgment once she had the necessary evidence in hand. "They know how to work this stuff," she replied. "They know what to do, and here I am, I don't know anything about the law. I would have to hire a lawyer or something, and I really can't afford that. I really don't know my rights. I don't know all the court lingo. I knew that up against them I would lose."
A search for "JK2 Westminster" in the database of Maryland's District Court system brings back 548 cases in which it is the plaintiff — and that does not include hundreds of other cases that have been filed in the name of the company's individual complexes.
The vast majority of these cases have been filed by a single small law firm in the Baltimore suburb of Owings Mills. The law office of Jeffrey Tapper specializes in "collections" work, with an emphasis on landlord-tenant cases. It has represented several other real-estate management companies, including Sawyer, which retains a stake in many of the Kushner complexes.
In April, I drove to Owings Mills in hopes of speaking to Tapper. As I waited for him by reception, I overheard an assistant making a call about a new case, saying that the firm would continue to pursue one tenant even if the other person on the lease had filed for bankruptcy. Tapper emerged, a man in his mid-60s with white hair, a paunch and a large smartphone clipped to his belt. Our interview was brief. "I'm not having any conversation with you that has to do with one of my clients," he said. "I'm not helping you with any of whatever you're trying to do."
In the cases that Tapper has brought to court on behalf of JK2 Westminster and individual Kushner-controlled companies, there is a clear pattern of Kushner Companies' pursuing tenants over virtually any unpaid rent or broken lease — even in the numerous cases where the facts appear to be on the tenants' side. Not only does the company file cases against them, it pursues the cases for as long as it takes to collect from the overmatched defendants — often several years. The court docket of JK2 Westminster's case against Warren, for instance, spans more than three years and 112 actions — for a sum that amounts to maybe two days' worth of billings for the average corporate law firm associate, from a woman who never even rented from JK2 Westminster. The pursuit is all the more remarkable given how transient the company's prey tends to be. Hounding former tenants for money means paying to send out process servers who often report back that they were unable to locate the target. This does not deter Kushner Companies' lawyers. They send the servers back out again a few months later.
In March 2009, Joan Beverly, a probation agent, signed the lease for her daughter, Lennettea, for a unit at Dutch Village, a complex on the northern edge of Baltimore. Lennettea moved out a year later, several months before her lease was up. Kushner Companies bought Dutch Village more than two years later. In December 2012, JK2 Westminster filed suit in Baltimore County District Court against Beverly, seeking $3,810.16 — several months of rent it said it was owed, plus about $1,000 in repair costs, including $10 for "failure to return laundry room card."
That February, Lennettea filed a written court notice explaining that her mother, who was dying of pancreatic cancer, was "in terminal hospice care and is not eligible to work." She added by way of supporting evidence a letter from the hospice provider to Joan Beverly's bank, explaining her and her husband's late mortgage payments on their home: "There has been added financial stress because Mrs. Beverly is very ill at this time." But JK2 Westminster persisted in seeking a hearing on the suit. In March, a district court judge found in favor of the company — a total judgment against Joan of more than $5,500.
Joan died two weeks later. Her husband, Tyrone Beverly, a retired longshoreman, requested that the judgment against his deceased wife be removed but was denied. The case remains open in the court database. Tyrone, who was married to Joan for 32 years, told me that he had assumed the judgment had been dismissed and was unaware that it was still listed as awaiting payment. "They just didn't treat us fair," he said.
The sweeping nature of the company's pursuit of tenants was most evident when those tenants were, in fact, prepared to defend themselves. Shawanda Hough moved out of her unit in the Carriage Hill complex in the northwestern Baltimore suburb of Randallstown in early 2012 after black mold worsened her son's asthma, landing him in the hospital twice. After the maintenance crew tried and failed to fix the problem, she got the rental office's written permission to move out in advance of her lease. But then Kushner Companies bought Carriage Hill, and a year and a half later, in August 2013, JK2 Westminster filed a lawsuit against Hough, seeking $4,068.53.
Hough fought back. In a court filing, she said that she had kept all of her documentation, and that the company had assured her that it had not lost a dime in rent; she had gone so far as to coordinate the time of her departure with the arrival of a new tenant. JK2 Westminster went ahead with a hearing before a judge a month later, but the judge ultimately found for Hough.
Cases like Hough's, however, were the exception rather than the rule. Overall, about nine out of every 10 cases brought by JK2 Westminster that I surveyed resulted in judgments against the defendants, who often did not appear in person for the hearings — and if they did, almost never had legal representation. How could it possibly be worth Kushner Companies' while to pursue hundreds of people so aggressively over a few thousand dollars here and there? After all, the pursuit itself cost money. And it wasn't happening just in Baltimore — Doug Wilkins, a lawyer in Toledo who has represented some of the complexes bought there by Kushner, told me the company is seeking far more monetary judgments than did previous owners.
When I presented JK2 Westminster's record of litigation to Matthew Cypher, a Georgetown University business professor who used to work for the real-estate giant Invesco, he said it was highly unusual to put so much effort into pursuing former tenants in court. "These people fade into the shadows of the night," he said. "It's amazing to me that there's that much to go after." Brian Pendergraft, an attorney in Greenbelt, Maryland, who works on both sides of landlord-tenant litigation, told me he had heard of large property-management companies pursuing former tenants for unpaid rent but not going so far as to pursue tenants who predated the company's ownership of a complex. "I guess you can do it," he said, "but I don't think it's cool."
But Matthew Hertz, whose Bethesda, Maryland, firm represents landlords and tenants in similar cases, explained to me that there is a logic behind such aggressive tactics. The costs of the pursuit are not as high as you might imagine, he said — people are not that hard to find in the age of cellphones and easily accessible databases. "If I give my process server a name and phone number, it's generally enough to trace you," he said. "If I have a date of birth and Social Security number, it's even easier." The legal costs can be billed to the defendant as attorney's fees, if the terms of the lease allow. And garnishing wages is relatively easy to do by court order, assuming the defendant has wages to garnish.
As for pursuing former tenants from years before the new company's ownership of a complex, Hertz said it was hardly different from an investor's buying a portfolio of mortgages: It's debt to be collected on. "If you buy someone's properties, you're buying their debts, not just their assets. You take the good with the bad, and try to collect on the bad. Even if you only get back 5 percent, you're making something," he said. "It's, 'I'm buying up this property and if I can collect anything, it's gravy on top.'"
There was, Hertz added, an ancillary benefit to such relentless pursuit: sending a message to current tenants. One way to make sure that tenants are paying their rent and to keep them from breaking leases early — which brings with it the costs and hassles of having to clean apartments and find new tenants — is to instill a sense of fear about violating a lease. "Any landlord takes that into account," Hertz said. "They know tenants are going to talk to each other. If they say, 'He's going to come after you,' it's deterrence."
When Kushner Companies finally responded to my questions about the cases, they essentially affirmed Hertz's reasoning. As manager for the Baltimore complexes, the company had a "fiduciary obligation" to its ownership partners to collect as much revenue as it could, said Kushner Companies' chief financial officer, Jennifer McLean, in a written response. She said the company's legal costs have been "minimal" compared with what it seeks to recover.
McLean declined to comment on several cases, including Kamiia Warren's. But she said the pursuit of Joan Beverly, the woman dying of cancer, was justified. "This tenant owed the landlord $3,819.16," she said in the written statement. "As property manager, it's our job to collect rent payments."
In general, "Westminster Management only takes legal action against a tenant when absolutely necessary," McLean said. "If legal action is pursued, however, the company follows guidelines consistent with industry standards." She added: "While taking a tenant to court is far from an ideal outcome, that option — and clear rules governing it — must exist as a last resort."
The Highland Village complex, along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, is one of Kushner Companies' largest, a vast maze of lanes and courts lined with rows of short brick-and-siding-fronted homes. Like the other Kushner complexes I visited in Baltimore's southern and eastern suburbs, it is situated in what was once a predominantly white working-class community, within reasonable commuting distance of the harbor and industrial plants, now defunct, like Bethlehem Steel. In recent decades, many black transplants from the city and Hispanic immigrants have arrived as well, and Highland Village is an unusually integrated place.
The complex, like the others I saw, seemed designed to preclude neighborliness — most of the townhouses lack even the barest stoop to sit out on, and at least one complex has signs forbidding ball-playing ("violators will be prosecuted"). At another complex, kids had drawn a rectangle on the side of a storage shed in lieu of a hoop for their basketball game. The only meeting points at many of the complexes are the metal mailbox stands, the dumpsters and the laundry room. And the only thing that united many of the residents I spoke to, it seemed, was resentment of their landlord.
They complained about Westminster Management's aggressive rent-collection practices, which many told me exceeded what they had experienced under the previous owners. Rent is marked officially late, they said, if it arrives after 4:30 p.m. on the fifth day of the month. But Westminster recently made paying the rent much more of a challenge. Last fall, it sent notice to residents saying that they could no longer pay by money order (on which many residents, who lack checking accounts, had relied) at the complex's rental office and would instead need to go to a Walmart or Ace Cash Express and use an assigned "WIPS card" — a plastic card linked to the resident's account — to pay their rent there. That method carries a $3.50 fee for every payment, and getting to the Walmart or Ace is difficult for the many residents without cars.
Tenants who pay after the fifth are hit with late fees that start around $40 to $50 and escalate from there, with court fees usually added on as well. What upsets residents most, though, are not the fees themselves but that the property managers, instead of putting pink or yellow late notices and court summonses discreetly in mailboxes or under doors, post them in public — on the front doors of townhouse units or on lobby walls or lobby doors of apartment buildings. This bothered even tenants who said they always paid their rent on time. "The whole neighborhood knows," said Marquita Parmely, a truck driver who pays $1,010 a month to rent a townhouse at Essex Park, near Cove Village. Dareck Cromwell, a retiree living at Carriage Hill, told me: "They put them in the windows for everybody to see, to see your business. That's not right. You don't put people's business out like that."
Compounding these grievances was Westminster's maintenance of the properties — or lack thereof. Their complexes comprise hundreds of units, but typically have only four or so workers looking after them. Alishia Jamesson, a 30-year-old Highland Village resident, invited me into the small living room of the $842-a-month townhouse she and her fiancé share with her two children. The room was cluttered with bags from Walmart and Dollar Tree, ketchup packets and supplies for the work Jamesson took up after she lost her cashier's job at Walmart for missing too many shifts for parenting duties: making personalized tote bags and gift baskets for weddings.
Jamesson showed me three large holes in the walls of the townhouse, which Westminster charged her and her fiancé, Keith Riggs, $150 to fix in October but had not yet repaired. "Every time I ask about drywall they say, 'Oh, well, we only have one drywall person,'" Riggs told me. There was also black mold spreading around the bathtub, a large brown stain and crack on the wall adjacent to the stove and a gap in the bathroom skylight that allowed in rain and snow. Jamesson told me that the refrigerator hadn't worked for more than a month before being replaced; her family had lived on canned food and boxed milk.
Complaints about poor upkeep abounded at the other complexes too. At Highland Village, there was the matter of the vacant unit that burned down one night a couple of months ago: Its shell was still standing, attended by nothing but plywood and a tarp. At Essex Park, east of the city, Marquita Parmely, the truck driver, told me she had a mouse infestation that was severe enough that her 12-year-old daughter recently found one in her bed. Parmely also has a 2-year-old with asthma, which is aggravated by allergens in mice droppings. She moved her own bed and other furniture away from the walls to dissuade mice, kept the family's laundry in tote bags after mice started appearing in the hamper and vacuumed twice a day. Her neighbor told me it took weeks for staff members to replace a rear window that had been shot out by kids with a BB gun.
At the Carroll Park complex in Middle River, Maryland, Jen Jackson showed me a ceiling leak that was causing a mold problem. At the Whispering Woods townhouses nearby, a resident named Nicole, who asked that I not use her last name, told me she had filed unheeded complaints about loose plastic shutters, one of which finally fell off and hit her in the head. (When I visited Nicole again a few weeks later, she told me that Westminster staff had scolded her for speaking with me and told her not to do so again. A large black pickup followed me and a photographer as we walked through the complex until we left.) In the same complex, Renee Cook showed me the large swath of her downstairs ceiling that had collapsed and the mold and mildew beneath the carpet, each resulting from a leak from her neighbor's (illicit) washer-dryer.
Asked about such conditions, Kushner Companies said it follows industry standards for maintenance staffing and exterminator visits, and that it and its partners had spent $10 million on upgrades across the complexes. "Despite those improvements, issues still arise, given the age of the properties," said McLean, the chief financial officer. Shortly after I put questions to the company about specific tenants' complaints, Cook's ceiling was repaired.
The worst troubles may have been those described in a 2013 court case involving Jasmine Cox's unit at Cove Village. They began with the bedroom ceiling, which started leaking one day. Then maggots started coming out of the living room carpet. Then raw sewage started flowing out of the kitchen sink. "It sounded like someone turned a pool upside down," Cox told me. "I heard the water hitting the floor and I panicked. I got out of bed and the sink is black and gray, it's pooling out of the sink and the house smells terrible."
Cox stopped cooking for herself and her son, not wanting food near the sink. A judge allowed her reduced rent for one month. When she moved out soon afterward, Westminster Management sent her a $600 invoice for a new carpet and other repairs. Cox, who is now working as a battery-test engineer and about to buy her first home, was unaware who was behind the company that had put her through such an ordeal. When I told her of Kushner's involvement, there was a silence as she took it in.
"Get that [expletive] out of here," she said.
Very few of the complex residents I met, even ones who had been pursued at length in court by JK2 Westminster, had any idea that their rent and late fees were going to the family company of the president's son-in-law. "That Jared Kushner?" Danny Jackson, a plumber in his 15th year living at Harbor Point Estates, exclaimed. "Oh, my God. And I thought he was the good one."
Jackson said he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Many of the others I spoke with had not voted — in that or any other election. "I'm not a big political person, so I feel like I don't think I should vote on something I know nothing about," Alishia Jamesson told me. But eastern Baltimore County was a Trump stronghold, a formerly staunch Democratic territory with many downwardly mobile white voters — and Kushner's complexes were no exception.
East of the city, I met Chris Freimiller, a 38-year-old resident of the company's Morningside Park complex, who was smoking Newports in his car before heading to work at a Rite Aid distribution center. Freimiller complained to me about the persistent leaks from the toilet and the ceiling damage it had caused, and about being hit repeatedly with late fees. He told me he voted for president for the first time ever last year — for Donald Trump. His vote, he said, was motivated by "the racial and police issues. How bad it got with Obama and how he seemed to promote the cop-bashing and the racial divide." Did knowing that he was sending his late fees to Trump's son-in-law change anything? "Yeah, actually," he said. "As if they need any more money."
At the Carroll Park complex, I met Mike McHargue, a private investigator, and his girlfriend, Patricia Howell. "They're nothing but slumlords," Howell told me of Westminster Management. "They take everyone's money." When I asked if they knew who was behind the company, they said they did not. "Oh, really?" Howell said when I mentioned Kushner's name. "Oh, really. And I'm a Trump supporter."
Jared Kushner stepped down as chief executive of Kushner Companies in January. But he remains a stakeholder in the company — his share of company-related trusts is estimated to be worth at least $600 million — and the company says it has no intention of selling off its multifamily holdings. (JK2 Westminster was formally dissolved in December, but Kushner Companies still owns the complexes through other entities; lawsuits against tenants are now typically filed in the names of the complexes themselves.) Because Kushner retains his interest in the complexes, the White House told The Baltimore Sun in February that he would recuse himself from any policy decisions about Section 8 funding, as many of his tenants rely on it for their rent. But even as Kushner now busies himself with his ever-expanding White House portfolio, his company is carrying on its vigorous efforts in court.
On April 17, three cases were being held consecutively in Baltimore's District Court involving tenants of the Dutch Village complex. One was against Catherine Silver, a Morgan State University student who had given notice that she was moving at the end of March — she was fed up with lousy maintenance (among other things, a perpetually clogged toilet and a ceiling leak in her closet). But when Silver went to Walmart to pay her March rent with her WIPS card, the money mistakenly ended up not in the account for Dutch Village but the one for Kushner Companies' adjacent complex, Pleasantview.
Westminster Management started eviction proceedings. On March 23, a sheriff's deputy changed the locks on the unit. Silver was traveling at the time — it was spring break — and it was not until March 31 that she was able to explain to a judge what happened and get her keys back. By that point, it was too late to get her possessions into the moving truck she'd rented, and classes had resumed. She stayed in the unit, in which Westminster had turned off the heat and hot water, trying again to plan her departure. But Westminster was now after her for April's rent, despite the fact that the company had literally barred her from being able to move before April, as she had intended. On April 25, a judge ruled that she needed to pay half of April's rent, plus court costs: $471.
Westminster had a lawyer from Tapper's firm, Andrew Rabinowitz, at the April 25 hearing, which lasted more than three hours — all over less than $500. The next day Rabinowitz was back to defend Westminster against Silver's criminal complaint over the unfounded eviction. This time, he was more accommodating, perhaps because he realized a reporter was present. After conferring with Dutch Village's property manager, who was also in attendance, Rabinowitz agreed to let Silver have until the end of May to move out, rent-free, as long as she paid for April. Silver asked if she could have her hot water turned back on. He said he would look into it. But when I visited Silver two weeks later, the hot water was still off. The stove was covered with the pots she was using to boil water for bathing.
On May 10 at the Highland Village complex, a woman was distributing the yellow "failure to pay rent" notices filed with the District Court to tenants who were behind on their May rent. One went up on the door of a man who introduced himself to me as Tommy, a recently divorced house painter with two children, who was at that moment sitting in his pickup truck reading Psalm 91 to gird himself for a visit to traffic court. He said he didn't know why he kept being hit with late fees and court fees at Highland Village because he was up to date on the rent itself.
Over at Carroll Park, Mike McHargue, the private investigator, had also received a yellow notice and was trying to find out when he needed to come up with money to avoid eviction. So was Chris Freimiller, the Rite Aid worker. He had missed a couple weeks of work with back pain related to a metal bar in his leg from an earlier car accident, and Westminster Management had moved quickly to file for eviction over $722.09 in missing rent, plus $66 in fees. When I arrived, Freimiller was sleeping on the couch after a night shift, and his wife, Jaclyn Meador, was trying to get an eviction date from the constable while their 11-year-old son, Ethan, looked on.
One more yellow notice was affixed at the Highland Park home of Alishia Jamesson, the wedding-basket maker. Her fiancé had left his job as a casino housekeeper to take a job handling Amazon packages near the airport, but his first check hadn't come through yet. Jamesson was working at Walmart again. The couple's car tags had expired, so both were enduring long public transit commutes. No one had come from maintenance. There were still three holes in the wall.