In My Own Words: Kushner and Baltimore

By: RABBI RACHEL ESSERMAN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR

President Donald Trump’s recent tweets about the city of Baltimore highlight the problems of low income housing in large cities. Many of these buildings are not well taken care of, with landlords refusing to make repairs and/or create safe environments for living. What is ironic, though, is that these tweets also brought to light a problem created by someone closely connected to the president: his White House innovations director and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, who is also his son-in-law, is the owner of housing projects in the city the president disparaged.
According to Businessinsider.com, “Kushner holds ownership of several Baltimore-area structures that have been so embroiled in housing violations and mismanagement that Kushner has been called a ‘slumlord.’” The same article noted that “a 2017 investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times called ‘The Beleaguered Tenants of Kushnerville’ detailed how a subsidiary of the real-estate firm Kushner Companies functioned and the poor living conditions that plagued residents in complexes bought under Kushner’s oversight.” According to the investigation, the “decrepit conditions includ[ed] leaking ceilings, maggots in living-room carpet, and raw human sewage coming from a kitchen sink. The report also includes mention of multiple retaliatory lawsuits against tenants who tried to move out.” Kushner’s company has also been fined for more than 200 code violations by Baltimore County.
Since Kushner’s family is Jewish, I wondered about the halachic (legal) obligations for a landlord. According to Torah.org (https://torah.org/learning/business-halacha-5757-vol2no15/), Jewish landlords do have certain legal obligations and it’s interesting to compare these to American ones. According to the ruling on the website, Jewish landlords are required to make certain a rental unit is in good shape before someone moves into it. What is required of the landlord after someone moves in depends on the circumstance. If the problem is caused by normal use, then the landlord is required to fix it. If it’s by an outside factor (vandals, etc.), then the landlord is not required to fix it, but neither is the tenant. That means that the tenant cannot be held responsible or have to pay for repairs.
Even if the Kushner Companies has chosen not to follow halachah, it is still required to follow American law. According to the Baltimore County Rental and Housing Laws (see www.peoples-law.org/baltimore-county-rental-and-housing-laws for more details), among the many things landlords are required to do are “to replace or repair any of the following which are missing or deteriorated: exterior architectural features which create an unsafe condition; exterior walls or other vertical supports; roofs or other horizontal features; exterior chimneys; crumbling or exterior plaster or masonry; ineffective waterproofing of exterior walls, roofs, and foundations; and all other exterior construction, including broken windows and doors.” No difference is made between those problems caused by regular wear and tear, and those caused by vandals.
Of course, all this begs the real question: If the president of the United States thinks any area of our country is a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” is it not his responsibility to do something about it? The Trump campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again.” Does that apply to all of the United States, or only those areas that support him? Shouldn’t the president be asking his Justice Department to help Baltimore take action against those who are responsible for the buildings and areas that are a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” (even if it is a member of his extended family), and seek financial aid to help solve some of the city’s problems? Instead of name calling, he should be suggesting legislation or working with Congress to make change possible. Unfortunately, these ideas don’t seem to be part of the operating procedure of the current occupant of the White House.