The Rent Is Still Due In Kushnerville
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It was the day after April rent was officially due — April 6 — and Kevin Maddox was officially late. The week before, he had lost both of his jobs within a few days of each other. Both were at food-service warehouses. “My job is to get the food to the restaurants, and if no one's going to the restaurants, then I'm out of a job," Maddox said. So he filed for unemployment and now stood outside his small rental row house just beyond the Baltimore city line watching his young daughter as she rode around in her plastic car.
His spirits were relatively high, all things considered. Both employers told him they'd take him back, as soon as things opened back up. That maybe helped explain why he still wore the cap from one of the warehouses: Maines Paper & Food Service Inc.
“This is tough," he said. “It's tough. But I'm hoping it'll be over in a month. They say it's supposed to be over in a month."
More than a month later, it is not over. And there have been few better places to track the economic unraveling and social stress of the pandemic lockdowns than the large housing complex where Maddox lives, Dutch Village, and a handful of other complexes in the Baltimore area owned by the same company. That's partly because these complexes are home to exactly the sort of workers who have been most affected by the crisis: both those whose jobs are likeliest to have been eliminated — casino workers, food-service workers, hotel housekeepers — and those whose jobs are likeliest to have been plunged into at-risk overdrive — Amazon warehouse workers, delivery drivers, nursing home aides, cleaners.
Here, there is nary a telecommuting professional to be found. Here, there is no escaping the upheaval. The need in the complexes is so great that one of them, Cove Village, has become a main distribution spot for free food from the Baltimore County school department: Every Monday through Thursday, a truck arrives at Cove Village and parks on Driftwood Court from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Families line up for a breakfast, lunch and snack, with an extra set given out on Thursday to tide kids over on Friday.
There is another reason to track the upheaval in these complexes. It happens that they are owned by the company led until not long ago by the person now tasked with overseeing the federal government's response to the crisis: Jared Kushner, son-in-law of President Donald Trump. The Kushner Companies, in which Jared still holds a large financial stake, has come under scrutiny in recent years for its litigious pursuit of tenants who allegedly owed back rent or broke leases, and for the poor conditions of many of the units. It was even the subject of a Netflix television documentary that aired just as the lockdowns first went into effect.
But the pandemic has now thrust Kushnerville, which consists of nine complexes in inner-suburban Baltimore County, some with as many as 1,000 units each, into unfamiliar territory. For years, tenants have learned to dread the aggressive tactics of their landlord: late-payment notices and court summons slapped on their doors, late fees and “court costs" and attorney fees added to bills, and, in some cases, even threats of jail time. Disclosure of those tactics led to a class-action lawsuit and a lawsuit by the state attorney general. The Kushner entities have denied wrongdoing. (A judge this year denied the plaintiffs' bid to form a class, which is on appeal; the attorney general's suit is ongoing.)
Now, though, that whole apparatus of intimidation has been disabled by the temporary ban on evictions. Without that final stage of the process for forcing payment, the rest of the apparatus has fallen away. There are, for the time being, no late fees, no “court costs," no summonses on doors. And even without that threat, many tenants are managing to make their rent, for now, thanks partly to enhanced unemployment benefits and the cash payments in the CARES Act.
Instead, everyone is waiting for the next phase, when the safety-net payments ebb, when the evictions resume and when the jobs do or do not come back, while contending with the eternal problems at Kushnerville: maintenance breakdowns, mice infestations and water leaks. And bringing this waiting into particularly stark relief here is the fact that whatever comes next — the strength of the nation's recovery — will depend partly on what can be accomplished by Jared Kushner himself, in his new role, 40 miles down the road.
The same week as Kevin Maddox was watching his daughter play outside, another young man was out walking at another Kushner-owned complex 15 miles to the east, Whispering Woods. The man, who did not want his name used, was heading to the unit where he lives with his fiancée and their child, from the one where her mother and father live, up the block. Both units were late on April rent. His fiancée's father was supposed to go back to work on a crew that repaves city roads, but then the pandemic came and shut the work down. He and his fiancée, meanwhile, both had to give up their jobs in the food-service department of a nursing home 20 miles away. The local bus system was cut back so far that they couldn't get there anymore, and the day care for their child had also shut down.
They had received the same form letter from the Kushner Companies' property management arm, Westminster Management, that other tenants in the complexes had gotten. It stated that rent was still due on the 5th of every month, but that there would be no late fees for the time being. The company, which declined to comment (or to respond to a list of tenant complaints cited in this article), would also no longer charge an extra fee for paying rent online.
The young man regarded the promised leniency warily. “They act like they care about us so much, but they really don't," he said. “They still want the money." Not that he had any particular animus against the complex's owner. He did not even know who that was. “Who Jared Kushner?" he said.
Nearby, Steve Williams was walking his dog. He and his wife, who had lived there for two years, had also been unable to pay on time because he hadn't been working after having a couple of heart attacks and her hours working as a file clerk had just been cut way back as a result of the pandemic. He had also gotten the letters promising leniency from the management office and was also wary of how much stock to put in them, given management's record. “I've been a renter for 20 years, and I've never seen anything like that," he said. “I've never seen someone get put out so fast as around here. Thirty days, and you're gone." With evictions on hold for the time being, though, he was more worried about an immediate concern: bedbugs. They had been getting worse of late, he said.
The more time one spent at the complexes, the more it seemed as if every other person you talked to had lost their job or had their hours greatly reduced. And that was representative of broader trends. The Wall Street Journal reported that nearly 40% of households earning less than $40,000 a year — a category that many in Kushnerville fall into — experienced at least one job loss in March, double the rate in households earning between $40,000 and $100,000 and triple that of those earning more than $100,000.
A few at Kushnerville that week were feeling more secure. Siera Ford was moving mattresses into her family's new unit at another Kushner-owned complex, Harbor Point Estates. She was moving into a new unit because a ceiling pipe had burst at her family's former unit at Harbor Point, destroying many of their belongings. This was the second time this had happened in their five years there, but, she said, at least the managers moved fairly quickly to get them into a new unit. “They do accommodate," she said.
Ford had already paid her April rent and was confident of being able to pay on time in future months, as well, given her in-demand work as a delivery driver. “My job is secure," she said. “I'm Amazon."
For one Kushnerville family, the bar on evictions had not come in time, and their plight would only worsen as the economic downturn accelerated. Jennifer and Bob Scrimger had been living at Whispering Woods since 2015 with four children. She worked as a waitress at Chili's and he did freelance computer-repair work. As time went on, they said, they started having more maintenance problems in their unit, especially water leaks, mold and mice. Troubles came to a head late last summer and fall, when water, apparently from the outdoor HVAC unit, began flowing into the downstairs, ruining the carpet and threatening the furniture. The Scrimgers put the furniture outside to protect it and management threatened to fine them for doing so. The mold worsened throughout the house, as did the mice, who were getting in through a hole under the kitchen sink.
All the troubles started taking a toll on Jennifer's mental health. She started having panic attacks and stuttering, something she'd never done before, and she wondered whether the conditions in the house had a role in her getting bacterial infections on her feet. Her performance at Chili's started to decline; she had always ranked high in the customer ratings, which were posted on a big board for all to see, but she now fell to second from last. She eventually contacted a Baltimore County inspection officer, who produced a list of needed repairs for Westminster Management, among them repairing a hole in the living room ceiling, replacing the water-damaged kitchen cabinet, remediating mold in a bedroom and addressing the mice infestation.
But by that point, the company had already begun eviction proceedings. The Scrimgers had been paying their rent — $917, plus about $50 in monthly water fees — but the eviction letter from the company's law firm accused them of violating their lease by not letting a workman into the house, for not keeping the house in “neat, clean, good and sanitary condition," and for having people in the house who weren't on the lease. Jennifer Scrimger disputed the first claim. She took great offense at the second. “They kept telling me it was my dirt," she said. “I can't make black dirt form on the ceiling. I don't have that capability." And she said that management had full documentation on which kids lived in the house. More likely, she said, the family was being punished for complaining about the house's problems.
Regardless, on Jan. 15 the Scrimgers were out for good, trailed by a nearly $2,000 bill of repair charges that Westminster said they owed. And for lack of alternative solutions, they settled on a less-than-ideal fallback: moving in with Bob's ex-girlfriend, the mother of three of his children, in her trailer in a mobile-home park near Whispering Woods, hard by the Washington-New York Amtrak line. They paid the ex-girlfriend, who works the early-morning shift at a convenience store, $800 per month to have them. It was a very crowded fit: four kids and four adults, including the ex-girlfriend's infirm and elderly father. The Scrimgers had talked about saving up to buy their own trailer in the mobile-home park, since this arrangement was clearly not sustainable. “It's a double-wide, but yeah, it is tight," Bob said.
And then came the shutdowns, which put the home-buying dreams on hold. On March 15, Jennifer worked her last shift at Chili's, which switched to takeout only. Bob's computer-repair work grew scarce. Jennifer filed for unemployment benefits, but Maryland's online application system buckled under the heavy demand. To try to get through, Jennifer would call on the phone, early on Sunday mornings. Their $1,200-per-person CARES Act payment never arrived, they said; $1,450 was claimed to cover Bob's child-support debts for another child, and the rest became hung up in bureaucratic limbo.
Meanwhile, Whispering Woods still remains very present in the family's life. They are in close touch with their friends there, and Jennifer still keeps the binders in which she had kept all of her many communications with Westminster Management and the county inspector, to defend herself against a Kushner claim for the alleged back charges or perhaps provide evidence for her own legal claim against the company.
One evening in mid-April, they sat out in front of the trailer, as Jennifer flipped through the binders. Her daughter, Lilly, who has since turned 5, came outside to ask what she was doing, and she told her she was talking about their house.
“About what house?" Lilly said.
“The house we used to live in, Boo-Boo."
“When are we going to live there?"
“We're not going to move back."
“Into a new house?"
“We're working on it."
Two weeks later, on April 29, Jared Kushner praised the Trump administration's response to the pandemic as a “great success story" on “Fox and Friends." “The federal government rose to the challenge and this is a great success story and I think that that's really what needs to be told," he said. Kushner predicted a swift economic comeback. “May will be a transition month. ... I think you will see by June, a lot of the country should be back to normal, and the hope is that by July the country is really rocking again," he said.
The next day, April would conclude with more than 20 million lost jobs and the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression. The day before that interview, the country had topped 1 million in confirmed coronavirus cases.
On April 28, another tenant stood outside her unit at Whispering Woods worrying how she was going to make May rent in a few days. The tenant, a woman in her 30s who also didn't want her name used, had seen her hours at a medical billing company cut in half. She was one of the many to suffer from the ills of the health care industry, which despite the surge in demand for COVID-19 treatment was seeing virtually all of its other business fall away. “They can't fire me, because they still need me, but they can't afford me, so we're stuck," she said. Her Honda Civic had recently been repossessed, so to get to the office she took Ubers or caught rides with friends. She had started applying for a second job: Walmart, Amazon, Domino's. She, too, had gotten the leniency letters, but she was worried how long that would last. “We don't got a voice here," she said. “It's Trump's son-in-law that takes care of everything, so no matter you do, you're going to get to get beat out in court."
There were some signs that the company's forbearance was wearing thin. A few days earlier, a management-office employee had marched down to the home of the asphalt-crew worker to ask when they were going to pay their $1,200 April rent. His wife told the management employee that they were paying it week by week, a few hundred dollars at a time, just like they always did, even though doing so had incurred late fees before the crisis. And, as she later recounted, she demanded to know what would come after the eviction ban was lifted. “When I give you all this money, are you going to turn around and put me out?' That's what I asked her. 'When all of this lifts up, are you going to be trying to put people out?' If you're going to hound us like that, you don't want us here."
The management office had also been clashing with Alejandra Polanco, 44, who had decided to move out after eight years in the complex because she was tired of all the leaks and other maintenance troubles in her unit. After she had informed them of her plan to leave, she said, the management office had retroactively charged her $200 more rent for each of the three past months, saying that her prior year's lease had expired. It was tough for her to make the extra payments, since the seafood restaurant she worked at was now takeout only, but she was planning on paying them. “I don't want to hurt my credit," she said.
Also scrambling for their next rent payment, $950, were the two young men who now lived in the Scrimgers' former unit. They had been in the same job-training class at Goodwill the year before. One, Corey Demery, 27, had stayed on for a job there, driving a forklift at $11 per hour, but had lost the job as result of the crisis. The other, Delvonte Warren, 26, had a job tryout just before the crisis hit at a Floor & Décor warehouse, but nothing came of it. He was thinking of getting a job at Taco Bell. His girlfriend, who also lived with them, was due with their first child in two months. “It's a hard time for it to happen," he said.
Around the country, the vast majority of tenants in complexes like Kushnerville were managing to get their April rent paid as the month neared its close. The National Multifamily Housing Council reported that as of April 26, 91.5% of renters in professionally managed buildings had made at least partial payments of that month's rent, down only slightly from 95.6% in the same month the year before. The CARES cash and unemployment benefits, which the federal government had enhanced by $600 per week, had served their purpose, at least for those who had made it through the balky application system for the latter.
It was hard to see, though, how the rent-payment rates would hold up in months to come. For many residents of Kushnerville, the CARES money was already out the door. The enhanced unemployment benefits were due to expire at the end of July. And in Maryland, the bar on eviction was due to be lifted once the governor declared an end to the coronavirus state of emergency. (There is also a separate federal ban on evictions in buildings backed by federally financed mortgages, which applies to many Kushner complexes. That ban lasts until July 25.)
Among those left grappling with the new eviction calculus as the calendar rolled into May was Shayla Milton. She had given birth to her second child a few weeks earlier, was on maternity leave from her job at one of the two big local Amazon warehouses and was trying to decide whether to go back when the leave ended in a few weeks. Her husband worked for Amazon, too, at the other warehouse, but he had stopped going to work because he was so worried about the risk of catching the coronavirus — there had been several cases at his warehouse. Amazon had for a while allowed workers to skip work without penalty, but that policy had ended May 1. Milton had, while on maternity leave, started driving for Uber and was considering sticking with that for now. It seemed somehow easier to control her exposure to the coronavirus there, with the windows open and constant sanitizing of her car, than in the high-pressure whirlwind of the warehouse.
Looking around her, Milton wondered what would become of her neighbors after the crisis passed. “Once that eviction ban is lifted," she said, “I really think they're going to kick everyone out that hasn't been paying their rent."
But she and her family were soon going to move out of Kushnerville, she hoped, to buy a small house. She had gotten tired of the water leaking through the roof and the constant mice. “We're supposed to leave in a few months," Milton said. “I can't wait."
Even a moment that should have offered hope, or at least a respite — the first full day of a partial relaxation of local stay-at-home orders on May 16 — only brought horror in Kushnerville. Police responding to a nuisance call in Cove Village after a cook-out shot and killed a 29-year-old local man with a gun. (The police portrayed it as self-defense; one witness told The Baltimore Sun the man had dropped the gun and fled.)
Two days later, there were still traces of the violence along the curb: disposable medical gloves and plastic wrappers for defibrillator electrodes and bandages. Bullet holes were visible in one door frame.
Deja Byrd, who works in a warehouse for the spice manufacturer McCormick's, heard the shooting that night but thought at first that it was firecrackers. When she learned later what had in fact happened, she was not entirely surprised. “Their patience is wearing thin," she said. Did she mean the patience of the police or residents? “Everyone," she said.