Many of the Westminster tenants facing eviction live on low or middle incomes in modest apartments in the Baltimore area, according to tenants. Some of them told The Washington Post they fell behind on rent after losing jobs or wages because of the pandemic.
Those facing eviction proceedings once courts begin hearing cases again include a nurse who struggled financially during the pandemic, health-care administrators and a single mother who is currently unemployed.
Yolanda Coates, who lives at a Westminster-owned property called Bonnie Ridge in Pikesville, Md., said she has kept her day job at a local child-care facility so far but has occasionally fallen behind on rent. As recently as Sept. 25, Westminster charged her court fees in an ongoing eviction case that started last year, according to an email reviewed by The Post.
“If you don’t pay before the fifth of the month, they still send out an eviction notice,” Coates said.
Tashika Booker, a resident of another Westminster property, Owings Run, says she used to work for an online education company. She lost her job in May and now receives a little more than $800 per month from unemployment insurance, but it’s not enough to cover her $1,300 rent.
“My bills are getting paid slowly but surely. It might not be on time, but I’m really in a better situation than a lot of other people,” Booker said.
She said she is looking for other ways to generate income, but Oct. 8 she received an email from the property manager saying, “we have filed on you with the District court of MD, so court fees will be added to your account.”
For the moment, Maryland courts cannot order people removed from their homes. The state’s moratorium was renewed Oct. 29, preventing cases from proceeding. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ban through the end of this year allows tenants in many cases to file paperwork to halt the process.
Westminster, a unit of the Kushner Cos., issued a statement from Kushner Cos. general counsel Christopher W. Smith saying the company was fully compliant with state and federal eviction bans, including ones approved by President Trump through the Cares Act and the CDC.
“Westminster has comprehensively abided by all federal, state, and local orders regarding residential tenancies during the Covid-19 pandemic … and will faithfully continue to do so,” the statement said.
When he joined his father-in-law, President Trump, in the White House, Kushner resigned from his family’s business but maintained ownership in Westminster, which paid him $1.65 million in 2019, according to his government disclosure form.
Westminster, which is co-owned by Kushner and other investors, has already drawn scrutiny from state officials. Last year Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh sued the company for its management practices, alleging that the company collects illegitimate fees for applications and evictions, and illegally claims tenants’ security deposits. Kushner Cos. representatives have called the suit politically motivated and are fighting the charges.
Westminster manages more than 20,000 apartments, according to its website. It is far from the only company moving to evict tenants despite the pandemic; housing experts have been warning for months that as Americans’ stimulus benefits run dry and eviction moratoriums expire, backlogs in eviction cases may be leading to a surge in renters being forced from their homes, particularly at the end of the year when the CDC moratorium ends.
Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which tracks evictions in 24 cities, found that landlords there have filed for 92,619 evictions during the pandemic. Eviction Lab’s Alieza Durana said that the lack of federal data made comparing time frames difficult but that whoever is elected president will face “increasing numbers of people at risk of eviction, particularly among marginalized communities.”
Data from past years suggests that evictions have a disproportionate impact on racial minorities. From 2012 to 2016, Black renters had evictions filed against them by landlords at nearly twice the rate of White renters, according to Eviction Lab data.
Some of Westminster’s tenants, including those facing eviction, are Black, and their plight was highlighted Oct. 26 by public backlash to comments Kushner made on Fox News. Kushner said on the air that Trump wants to help Black people but that they have to “want to be successful” for his policies to work.
“President Trump’s policies are the policies that can help people break out of the problems that they’re complaining about, but he can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful,” Kushner said.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended Kushner, issuing a statement saying it was “disgusting to see internet trolls taking Senior Advisor Jared Kushner out of context as they try to distract from President Trump’s undeniable record of accomplishment for the black community.”
Another research and advocacy group, the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, found that corporate landlords have filed more than 10,000 eviction notices in five states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas — since September.
“There is definitely a question about what happens as time goes on,” said Jim Baker, the group’s executive director. “Clearly we are seeing some increases. It doesn’t add up to a surge yet. But with big companies making these filings and with moratoriums expiring, we are wondering if we will see more.”
Kushner played key role in White House pandemic response
Kushner is in a unique position to understand how the coronavirus has ravaged the national economy and the real estate industry.
After joining the nascent coronavirus task force with Vice President Pence, Kushner said at an April 2 news conference that “the president wanted us to make sure we think outside the box, make sure we’re finding all the best thinkers in the country, making sure we’re getting all the best ideas, and that we’re doing everything possible to make sure that we can keep Americans safe.”
But his handling of the federal pandemic response, in which he quickly assembled a team of private-sector volunteers with limited expertise in health, ended with the administration leaving large parts of the response to the states.
“The bottom line is that this program sourced tens of millions of masks and essential [personal protective equipment] in record time, and Americans who needed ventilators received ventilators,” Kushner said in a May statement. “These volunteers are true patriots.”
Before Trump ran for president, Kushner had taken over his family’s real estate company from his father, Charlie Kushner. Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, reported combined assets valued at between $204 million and $783 million last year.
Kushner has passed on some chances to avoid conflicts of interest. He planned to divest his stake worth between $25 million and $50 million in the real estate start-up he co-founded, Cadre, and received an approval in February from the Office of Government Ethics to do so tax-free. But in June he withdrew the request, according to a filing with the office.
Kushner’s company has struggled to pay some of its own debts, including by missing payments to one of its lenders on the retail space at the old New York Times building on West 43rd Street in Manhattan, according to securities filings. Kushner Cos. did not comment when asked about the property.
Advocates credit President Trump, Congress and some states for moratoriums that they say have kept people in their homes despite job losses and pay decreases due to the pandemic.
The Cares Act prohibited landlords at properties supported by federal housing programs, including Westminster’s Owings Run property, from making any court filing to start legal action. That moratorium expired July 24, allowing landlords to begin filing after a 30-day grace period, as early as Aug. 25.
Other moratoriums, such as the one in Maryland, don’t bar landlords from beginning the eviction process. State records show that the number of completed evictions has fallen during the pandemic but that landlords still initiate thousands of new cases every week despite the bans. There were about 8,200 new eviction filings in July, down from about 55,500 in February.
The CDC moratorium, announced by Trump on Sept. 1, was later clarified to also allow landlords to start the eviction process — as Westminster has done — so long as the actual eviction is delayed. Companies can then evict families once the moratorium expires Dec. 31.
‘The warning shot’
Even with the moratoriums in place, tenants and advocates say landlords can effectively bully some families out of their properties without a formal eviction taking place.
Experts say they see far more “constructive evictions” — cases in which people leave because they are pressured over missed rent and don’t know their rights. Some tenants don’t want an eviction on their permanent record because it can show up on credit ratings and other legal screenings, experts and tenants said. Others move out to avoid court fees.
“This is the warning shot — do you want to have your stuff just thrown out on the street, or do you want to just go?” said Georgetown University law professor Adam J. Levitin. “I suspect in many cases landlords are hoping to move people out without having to go through the actual formal eviction.“ Several tenants said they were regularly being charged court fees for eviction cases that started before the pandemic and have been reopened in recent months.
Zafar Shah, an attorney with a Baltimore-based legal aid nonprofit, the Public Justice Center, said even relatively small fees “can make the difference between the eviction going through or not, or the tenant being able to take the bus to work.”
Booker, one of the Owings Run residents, described the eviction threats as “heartless” coming from a company owned by the president’s son-in-law.
“The way they’re treating us is just making us feel like we’re nothing. It feels like we’re … what’s the word … disposable,” she said. “They just want us gone so someone else can come in."
Alice Crites contributed to this report.