Before Kushner was shorthand for awkwardness both silent and spoken, the name was synonymous with real estate.
The forefather of the Kushner dynasty, Joseph Kushner, emigrated from Belarus and was a member of what came to be known as the “Holocaust Builders,” a group of World War II survivors who found success doing construction and real estate development in New Jersey. In 1985, Joseph and his son Charles started a small real estate firm, Kushner Companies. When Joseph died nine months later, Charles assumed control of the company’s assets, which included 4,000 apartments that Joseph had built.
By the early 2000s, Charles, equally brash and charming, was a titanic figure in American business. He’d turned Kushner Companies into a billion-dollar real estate empire with nearly 25,000 apartments across the Mid-Atlantic and himself into one of the most powerful moguls in the country. Charles wielded influence over nearly every sphere of society in his home state and New York City, including the religious (he was a generous benefactor to Jewish causes), the political (he donated millions to prominent Democrats), and the social (he was a fixture of gossip rags and saw himself as a Jewish Kennedy).
But in 2005, Charles Kushner was given a two-year prison sentence for pleading guilty to 18 counts of tax evasion, witness tampering, and making illegal political donations. The crimes were “crimes of greed, power, and excess,” said then–U.S. attorney Chris Christie, who told the New York Times that the sentencing “shows that no matter how rich and powerful you are in this state you will be prosecuted and punished for the crimes you commit.” (Oh, the irony…)
Bending over the bathroom sink meant leaving the door open and sticking my butt out into the room that functioned as our kitchen, living room, and dining room.
With Charles in prison, his son Jared, then just 24, was entrusted with control of Kushner Companies. Jared’s purview included both Westminster Management, the subsidiary that oversees Kushner Companies’ residential buildings in five states (New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio), and Westminster City Living, the property management arm for residences in New York City. Jared began buying up real estate in desirable, rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. He spent $130 million on 17 walk-up apartment buildings in the East Village, then $49 million on seven more. He bought 184 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg for $275 million. And in January 2014, he spent $17 million on 170–174 East Second Street, two buildings in the East Village.
Seven months later, in August 2014, I signed a one-year lease with my college friend Leo on a two-bedroom, second-floor walk-up at 170 East Second Street. If most recent graduates’ first apartments in New York City are shoeboxes, mine was a pricey, shiny diorama. With my parents’ generous help, I paid $1,750 a month for my half of the rent, a number that embarrasses me now. The apartment looked meticulously built, so freshly renovated that the appliances were still plastic-wrapped and the floors still lustrous when I moved in, but it was comically small. Its slitlike windows allowed in as much light in the morning as at night. My bedroom fit only a skinny IKEA dresser and a cheap metal bed frame; Leo had a Murphy bed that I thought would swallow him alive like a Venus flytrap. Bending over the bathroom sink meant leaving the door open and sticking my butt out into the room that functioned as our kitchen, living room, and dining room.
We had little privacy, even less space, and, because of the not-quite-finished renovations, no cooking gas. Westminster promised that the construction would be done and the gas restored within a couple months. The company had even offered a free month’s rent, which — sure, whatever, no problem. Neither Leo nor I could cook much beyond scrambled eggs anyway, and we figured we could subsist on sandwiches and Seamless.
If only I knew then what I, and thousands of other New Yorkers, know now: that living in an apartment owned by Kushner Companies is an absolute, unequivocal, never-ending hell.