When Americans were introduced last year to Ivanka Trump’s husband and the nation’s prospective son-in-law in chief, it was as the preternaturally poised, Harvard-educated scion of a real-estate empire whose glittering ambitions resembled Donald Trump’s own. In 2007, Kushner Companies, run at the time by Jared and his father, Charles, bought the aluminum-clad skyscraper at 666 Fifth Avenue for a record-breaking $1.8 billion; they are now seeking partners for a $12 billion plan to replace it with a glass tower that would be 40 stories taller. In 2013 they acquired 17 buildings in Manhattan’s East Village for about $130 million, and three years later they spent $715 million on a cluster of buildings owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses on prime land in Brooklyn’s fast-developing Dumbo district.
But the Kushners’ empire, like Trump’s, was underwritten by years of dealing in much more modestly ambitioned properties. Jared’s grandfather Joseph Kushner, a Holocaust survivor from Belarus, over his lifetime built a small construction company in New Jersey into a real-estate venture that owned and managed some 4,000 low-rise units concentrated in the suburbs of Newark. After taking over the business, Charles expanded Kushner Companies’ holdings to commercial and industrial spaces, but the company’s bread and butter remained the North Jersey apartment complexes bequeathed to him by his father.
In the mid-2000s, the company began to sell off the more than 25,000 multifamily rental units it owned, culminating in a 2007 sale of nearly 17,000 units for $1.9 billion. The sale — near the peak of the housing boom, just months before the crash — was impeccably timed, but it also reflected a shift in the attentions of what would soon be a three-generation real-estate dynasty. Charles, a major Democratic Party donor, had returned late the previous year from a brief stint in federal prison after pleading guilty to 18 counts of tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign donations. Back at the helm of the company, he began to shift its focus from New Jersey to New York City — and prepared to pass the reins to his son Jared, who had just received a degree in law and business from New York University.
But amid the high-profile Manhattan and Brooklyn purchases, in 2011, Kushner Companies, with Jared now more firmly in command, pulled together a deal that looked much more like something from the firm’s humble past than from its high-rolling present. That June, the company and its equity partners bought 4,681 units of what are known in real-estate jargon as “distress-ridden, Class B” apartment complexes: units whose prices fell somewhere in the middle of the market, typically of a certain age and wear, whose owners were in financial difficulty. The properties were spread across 12 sites in Toledo, Ohio; Pittsburgh; and other Rust Belt cities still reeling from the Great Recession. Kushner had to settle more than 200 debts held against the complexes before the deal could go through; at one complex, in Pittsburgh, circumstances had become so dire that some residents had been left without heat and power because the previous owner couldn’t pay the bills. Prudential, which was foreclosing on the portfolio, sold it for only $72 million — half the value of the mortgages on the properties.
In the following months, Kushner Companies bought another 1,700 multifamily units in similar markets, according to the trade publication Multifamily Executive. Unlike the company’s big New York investments, the complexes were not acquired with an eye toward appreciation — these were not growing markets, after all — but toward producing a steady cash flow. “Our goal is to keep buying and incrementally growing — they’re good markets where you can get yield,” Jared Kushner told Multifamily Executive in October 2011, predicting that the net income for the year’s purchases would be $14 million within a year. The complexes buttressed the Kushner portfolio in another way, he said: They would serve as a hedge against an upswing in inflation he believed was looming on the horizon.
A year later, in August 2012, a Kushner-led investment group bought 5,500 multifamily units in the Baltimore area with $371 million in financing from Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage lender — another considerable bargain. Two years later, Kushner Companies picked up three more complexes in the Baltimore area for $37.9 million. Today, Westminster Management, Kushner Companies’ property-management arm, lists 34 complexes under its control in Maryland, Ohio and New Jersey, with a total of close to 20,000 units.
Kushner’s largest concentration of multifamily units is in the Baltimore area, where the company controls 15 complexes in all — which, if you assume three residents per unit, could be home to more than 20,000 people. All but two of the complexes are in suburban Baltimore County, but they are only “suburban” in the most literal sense. They sit along arterial shopping strips or highways, yet they are easy to miss — the Highland Village complex, for example, is beside the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, but the tall sound barriers dividing it from the six-lane highway render its more than 1,000 units invisible to the thousands traveling that route every day.
The complexes date mostly from the 1960s and ’70s, when white flight from the city was creating a huge demand for affordable housing in Baltimore County. They were meant to exude middle-class respectability — unglamorous but safe and pleasant enough, a renter’s Levittown. Since then, however, they have slipped socioeconomically, along with the middle class itself, into the vast gray area of the modern precariat — home to casino workers, distribution-warehouse pickers, Uber drivers, students at for-profit colleges. Although most of the tenants I met in a series of recent visits to the complexes pay their own rent, ranging from about $800 to $1,300, some of them receive Section 8 assistance, as Kamiia Warren did; Baltimore County has no public housing for a population of more than 825,000, so these and similar complexes have become the de facto substitute.
At the time of the 2012 Baltimore purchase, Kushner raved about the promise of the low-end multifamily market. “It’s proven over the last few years to be the most resilient asset class, and at the end of the day, it’s a very stable asset class,” he told Multifamily Executive. He said things were proceeding well in the Midwestern complexes he purchased a year earlier. “It was a lot of construction and a lot of evictions,” he said. “But the communities now look great, and the outcome has been phenomenal.”
And Kushner is very, very wealthy as a result of that cash flow. His tenants, well, not so lucky. Kushner's rental property business, Westminster, is pretty ruthless on evictions and suing tenants, and they basically always win. It's pretty grubby and gruesome work to profit off of affordable housing by squeezing tenants for every last buck, but Kushner is far from the only person doing it amid America's rapidly growing affordable housing crisis.
And being Trump's son-in-law doesn't hurt, either. If you somehow think Kusher and his wife Ivanka Trump are somehow going to be moderating influences on Donny, you should probably reconsider based on the kind of person Kushner is, and why Ivanka married him.