After months of pleading with Westminster City Living to restore cooking gas and address a litany of repairs in her aging East Village tenement building, Jennifer Hengen and other members of the 118 East 4th Street tenant association had reached their breaking point. “It was like waiting for Godot,” she recalled.
Not only had the building’s real-estate management company, headed by Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, neglected to fix problems in her building, and many more across the neighborhood, but tenants felt as if the problems didn’t really matter to management. “We’re invisible to them because we’re not millionaires,” she said. “I just don’t think we’re taken very seriously– number one, because we’re not in one of the big, shiny buildings and, number two, because we are rent-stabilized.”
And yet Westminster insists that it does care about the East Village community– hence a new initiative dubbed, you guessed it, Westminster Cares. The volunteering “opportunity” has been billed to tenants as a chance to “serve your community while getting to know your fellow Westminster neighbors.” Needless to say, Hengen is not impressed. “It’s such a cynical PR move to make Westminster all nice and warm and fuzzy because of the current political situation,” she said. “I think anyone who’s spent a lot of time here has just kind of rolled their eyes.”
That feeling of a disconnect between tenants and their landlord is unlikely to be helped by news that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are house-hunting in D.C. while President-elect Trump considers incorporating them into his administration.
In the last few years, Kushner has grown his real-estate profile, investing heavily in the East Village with a focus on old-school tenement buildings, many of them majority rent-regulated. Hengen’s building is just one of more than 50 owned by Kushner in the East Village alone, part of a $130 million portfolio expansion in 2013.
Since Kushner first made inroads into the East Village, Westminster City Living has built a less than favorable reputation across the city. The company has a dismal rating of 1.5 stars on Yelp. One reviewer, who described herself as a native New Yorker, called Westminster “absolutely the worst building management company in Manhattan.” Tenant complaints range from vermin and roach infestations to haphazard gut renovations and hazardous construction sites, and even the loss of essential services such as heat, hot water, and cooking gas, sometimes for months on end. Just this week, a row of Westminster’s buildings on East 9th Street were hit with turn-off notices after their electricity bills went unpaid.
As a result of all this, some tenants are suspicious of Westminster Cares, even if it’s a partnership with a legitimate organization, Education Alliance. Cindy, who has lived in a rent-stabilized unit since 1992, attended the first Westminster Cares meeting back in November, hopeful that it would be a way to air her grievances. (Cindy has requested that her real name not be used in light of Kushner’s potential role in the coming Trump White House. “I don’t want to be a target,” she said. “Especially this new administration, which really just doesn’t like poor people.”)
“I thought it was going to be a forum for tenants to talk about the problems they’ve been having in their apartment, then it turned out that it was some kind of PR whitewash event where they were trying to get people to sign up for community service,” she said. “Which I thought was so weird because they rent out apartments that are $3,500 a month and there are people literally sleeping on the streets in front of these buildings.”
Cindy and a friend who also lives in the building ended up leaving the meeting early when they became convinced it was just a way for Westminster “to cover up what they’re really doing to the East Village,” i.e., “eating up the character of the neighborhood by only trying to create housing for wealthy people.”
Westminster, of course, sees things differently. A spokesperson told us turnout for the launch meeting was good and they’ve received positive feedback from tenants who are looking forward to volunteering. The rep described Westminster Cares as a way to “connect our residents to volunteer projects in the community. We’ll be rolling out a full schedule, including projects to help seniors, children and individuals with special needs in the East Village.”
The Education Alliance, for its part, said it was “always delighted and grateful when people reach out to ask how they can assist our organization,” and described Westminster Cares as “another example of the ways Education Alliance engages with organizations of all types – nonprofits, corporations, faith-based organizations – to give people the opportunity to learn how they can get involved.”
Hengen, who has lived in her rent-stabilized East 4th Street building since 1991, was among those tenants who declined to attend the introductory meeting, even after her building was bombarded with invitations. “Do they really think we’re just a bunch of idiots?” she laughed.
“I’d rather pick maggots out of a wound than schmooze with Westminster people,” she told us. Earlier this year, she and her neighbors took Kushner’s company to housing court, and demanded that the company address more than 35 open building code violations, clean up the mounting garbage pileup, and restore cooking gas, which had been cut off for months. “The building was falling into great neglect around us,” Hengen explained. “That seems to be happening a lot with these places, because it seems like [the owners] would just like to gut them, or get rid of them and build a fancy skyscraper in their place.”
It took a year of organizing, help from tenant organizers like Brandon Kielbasa at Cooper Square Committee, the backing of local officials like Rosie Mendez and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and the added frustration of the market-rate tenants, before Westminster started taking the tenants’ demands seriously. “Up until then, the market rate tenants had been treated better, and when the rent-stabilized tenants complained it was basically a shrug and, ‘Well, you get what you pay for’ kind of attitude,” Hengen recalled. “That was the beginning of our efforts to bring Westminster to court, because we were all getting dicked around, frankly.”
In April, Westminster finally agreed to a settlement— a“victory” for the tenants, according to Kielbasa. But even now, many months later, not everything is hunky dory. “After the settlement, Westminster did move rather quickly to correct some of the most serious problems,” Hengen said. “We’re not treated with contempt anymore, they’re friendly to us. The little people over there are quite nice, but as a real-estate entity, it’s just Kafkaesque. And this pertains to everything from the physical problems in the apartment to the bureaucracy.”
According to Hengen, various invites to the Westminster Cares meeting showed “all different times and dates and places”– a disorganization that was indicative of the “protracted bumblings” with which the company addressed even minor repairs. “This is how they approach things: they slap a band-aid on a cosmetic problem,” she explained.
She also spoke to a number of “lost” rent checks and said that rent renewals are never issued in time, which housing organizer of Cooper Square Brandon Kielbasa confirmed many tenants have experienced.
One of those tenants, Grant, rented a market-rate unit in an East Village building for most of 2015. He told us that he consistently payed his rent on time, and yet he was repeatedly told by Westminster that they hadn’t received rent payments or even a security deposit from him. Each time, he said, he was able to prove that they were in the wrong. “They’d cashed the check,” he told us. “That sort of mentality of, ‘We’re not going to give you any information or let you know where your rent has gone’ just kept coming up again and again and again.”
When he “stupidly” decided to resign the lease for another year, he said, he was never issued a copy of the rent renewal, which is illegal.
Cindy felt that something is left to be desired by Westminster’s management style. “I personally have not had any problems with them– I’ve never been harassed, although I have heard of some other people being harassed– and when something is broken in my apartment, they send somebody to fix it,” she said. “But in terms of sorely needed repairs in the building, they have not done so.”
Like Hengen, Cindy criticized Westminster for making superficial repairs only. “A lot of the improvements they’ve made have been cosmetic, and not structural.” She pointed to the fact that Westminster had installed washers and driers in some of the apartments in her building, but they failed to fix the bad wiring in the building. “The garbage in the courtyard is always a problem, and we have a problem with vermin. They just haven’t done a thorough job.”
According to records with the Department of Health, Cindy’s building failed vermin inspection in April 2015 when “active rat signs” were found, but the building passed its most recent inspection in June 2016. A number of complaints have been filed with the Department of Buildings since Westminster bought the property in 2012– exposed wiring, construction work without permits. But as of now, the building has no open violations.
Sometimes, even the cosmetic fixes are unsatisfactory. J., a rent-regulated tenant who has lived in a Westminster building in Boerum Hill for 21 years, recalled asking for a fresh paint job and getting “this horrible hatchet shit job that nobody in the world would tolerate.” When she called Westminster to complain, a rep denied the possibility that the job was poorly done and claimed that it had cost $3,000, J. said.
According to Cindy, the company is “just not committed to building a community. It’s a hot neighborhood, and I think they feel, ‘We can get by with the minimum, because there’s always somebody else who’s gonna come and pay more.'” When Westminster first bought her building, the tenants met with Community Board 3 in an attempt to get a mediated dialogue going with their landlord. “Someone from Westminster came,” Cindy recalled. “And [the representative], she said very dryly, ‘Anyone who’s not happy with our buildings is welcome to leave,’ without addressing any of the complaints about lack of heat, lack of hot water, and the garbage piling up in the courtyard.”
Throughout New York City, rent-stabilized tenants have almost come to expect routine neglect from their landlords, but many of Westminster’s market-rate tenants feel they have been mistreated too. Christopher Liam Dougherty, who rented from the company in 2014, posted photos of his own harrowing experience in a Yelp review. That’s where B+B tracked him down for more details.
“Across the board, it was just a miserable experience,” he said of his year in a “recently renovated” apartment at 195 E 4th Street. “No accountability.”
“It seemed like they really took a lot of shortcuts along the way,” he said. Minor problems gave way to a much larger issue. “My breaking point really hit in January 2015, [when] I started experiencing a leak in my ceiling.”
Christopher said he reported the problem to Westminster immediately, but no one showed up to address the leak. After almost a week, he came home to find that “the ceiling had, in essence, caved in.” Chunks of the plaster had fallen into his bed, and water was now dripping from an overhead light too. Christopher said he contacted the super only to find out that he’d been replaced by another, even less responsive super. “It literally took almost 72 hours for a Westminster rep to even show up to look at my apartment, despite constant texts, phone calls.” Then came 35 days of waiting for Westminster to take care of the proper repairs and clean-up, Christopher said.
In response to the long list of accusations, a Westminster spokesperson told B+B: “As with all our properties, we are committed to providing a high level of service for our tenants across our East Village portfolio, which is nearly fully leased. We maintain that level of occupancy and service by investing in essential building infrastructure, so we consistently make meaningful upgrades in our walkup buildings across the city on behalf of our residents. We pride ourselves on treating all tenants with fairness and respect, and are actively working under new leadership to strengthen our management-tenant relationships, including through the Westminster Cares initiative.”
Despite the timing of its launch, Westminster denies the initiative has anything to do with the outcome of the election.