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Kushner Cos. investigated over harassment of low-income tenants

The Austin Nichols House at 184 Kent Ave. in Brooklyn, owned by Kushner Cos. An Associated Press investigation into one of Kushner Cos.’ largest residential buildings in New York City revealed what some residents say was a campaign that used noisy construction to push rent-stabilized tenants out and bring high-paying condo buyers in.
The Austin Nichols House at 184 Kent Ave. in Brooklyn, owned by Kushner Cos. An Associated Press investigation into one of Kushner Cos.’ largest residential buildings in New York City revealed what some residents say was a campaign that used noisy construction to push rent-stabilized tenants out and bring high-paying condo buyers in.(Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

NEW YORK — Kushner Cos. is being investigated in New York over allegations the real-estate company used disruptive construction projects to harass rent-regulated tenants so they would move out of their apartments.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Tenant Protection Unit opened the investigation after residents of Austin Nichols House in Brooklyn accused Kushner Cos. in a lawsuit of doing work “that released dangerous toxins into the air and created unlivable conditions for tenants, including vermin and excessive construction noise,” the state said Monday.

The lawsuit was filed late Sunday by 20 tenants who are seeking $10 million in damages.

Kushner Cos. is owned by family members of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law.

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“No one is above the law, and we will thoroughly investigate the appalling allegations of harassment at this or any related property and hold anyone found guilty of such abuse responsible to the fullest extent of the law,” said RuthAnne Visnauskas, the New York State Homes and Community Renewal commissioner.

More than a dozen current and former residents of the apartment building in the Willamsburg section of Brooklyn told the Associated Press that they believe Kushner Cos.’ relentless construction, along with rent increases of $500 a month or more, was part of a campaign to push tenants out of rent-stabilized apartments and bring high-paying condo buyers in.

Tenants said the hammering and drilling began just months after the Kushners bought the building. They said it started early in the morning and went on until nightfall, so loud that it drowned out normal conversation, so violent it rattled pictures off the walls, the AP reported.

So much dust wafted through ducts and under doorways that it coated beds and clothes in closets. Rats crawled through holes in the walls. Workers with passkeys barged in unannounced.

Residents who begged for relief got a standard reply: ‘‘We have permits.’’

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Kushner Cos. said the lawsuit is without merit and residents of Austin Nichols House were “fully informed” about planned renovations that were completed under full city supervision.

“Tenants were never pressured to leave their apartments and the market-rate rent stabilization was — and continues to be — complied with under applicable rent guidelines,” the company said in a statement.

“Any complaints during construction (which was completed in 2017) were evaluated and addressed promptly by the property management team,” the statement said.

An AP investigation found that over the past three years, more than 250 rent-stabilized apartments — 75 percent of the building — were either emptied or sold as Kushner Cos. was converting the building to luxury condos.

Those sales so far have totaled more than $155 million, an average of $1.2 million per apartment.

The landmark building was once a warehouse for groceries and Wild Turkey bourbon. A previous owner converted it to apartments in 2010 to take advantage of the building’s high ceilings and waterfront views.

Jared Kushner and two partners bought it for $275 million in April 2015, aiming to convert the building’s 338 apartments — all rent-stabilized — into condos.

All but nine were occupied, and other than increasing the rent, developers had few tools if they wanted to get tenants out.

The Tenant Protection Unit has previously referred several landlords for criminal prosecution to the Brooklyn district attorney and the New York attorney general.

The agency’s past actions have identified tens of thousands of improperly deregulated apartments and recovered more than $4.5 million in overcharged rent, the agency said.

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In a separate matter, former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman said in March that he would meet with tenant representatives to discuss a report by a housing watchdog group that claims Kushner Cos. underreported the number of rent-regulated units in dozens of buildings to escape extra scrutiny of construction projects.