It’s a common observation that poverty is expensive. That living on the margins—or close to them—means higher costs for basic necessities like housing, food, and transportation. That living paycheck-to-paycheck makes ordinary banking more difficult—overdraft fees aren’t a particular problem for middle-income and affluent people—and puts affordable credit out of reach. That precarious employment makes eviction—a costly, traumatic event—more likely. Most salaried workers won’t have to delay medical care, rely on payday lenders, or spend $15 to cash checks that they earned. Too many low-income Americans have to do just that.
If poverty is expensive for the poor, then it’s also often lucrative for those on the other side; the people who make the payday loans, run the expensive corner stores, and rent the apartment buildings. Sociologist Matthew Desmond illustrated the latter in his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, using close observation of landlords for low-income housing in Milwaukee. But those are small-scale operations largely run by ordinary people earning middle- to upper-middle-class incomes off small-scale property management. But to see how this predation works on a large scale, look no further than the White House.
In a feature for ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine, journalist Alec MacGillis shined light on the role of Jared Kushner—son-in-law and close adviser to President Trump—as a real estate developer and landlord. In 2011 and 2012, seeking a stable source of revenue, Kushner and his partners purchased thousands of units of working-class housing in the inner-ring suburbs of cities like Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Their largest holdings are in Baltimore County, Maryland, where they control 15 complexes that house up to 20,000 people in total. And in managing these properties, reports MacGillis, Kushner is a harsh and unforgiving landlord.
Kushner’s company is relentless in its pursuit of “virtually any unpaid rent or broken lease—even in the numerous cases where the facts appear to be on the tenants’ side.” Residents are slapped with thousands of dollars in fees and penalties, even if they had previously won permission to terminate a lease. All of this is compounded by poor upkeep of facilities. MacGillis describes one family that has had to deal with mold, broken appliances, and physical damage to their unit—even after paying the management company for repairs. In one complex, a resident “had a mouse infestation that was severe enough that her 12-year-old daughter recently found one in her bed.” In another, raw sewage flowed into the apartment.
Jared Kushner stepped down as chief executive of Kushner Companies upon taking his position in the White House, although he retains a $600 million stake in the business, which still holds and manages these properties. “They’re nothing but slumlords,” said one tenant to MacGillis. For someone whose company all but exploits the precariousness and desperation of people who have few other choices for decent housing, it is a fair charge.
What’s striking about this story of exploitation and extraction is how it’s one of many within the Trump administration. There’s the president himself, who stiffed and stole from contractors as a real estate developer, and scammed thousands of people out of their savings with his “university.” There’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who allegedly (and repeatedly) broke California foreclosure laws as head of OneWest Bank by violating statutes on notice and waiting periods and illegally backdating documents to push underwater homeowners out of their homes over sums as small as 27 cents. “After years peddling the kind of dangerous mortgage-backed securities that eventually blew up the economy, Mnuchin swooped in after the crash to take a second bite out of families by aggressively—and sometimes illegally—foreclosing on their homes,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a statement last December.
There’s billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, heir to Amway, one of the largest and best-known multilevel marketing companies in the world and arguably a pyramid scheme. In her own life, DeVos has been a strong backer of for-profit colleges, an industry long under fire (and state and federal investigation) for its predatory behavior. Many of these institutions attract students with deceptive recruiting—promising jobs and opportunity—and leave them with high debt loads and few prospects. The Obama administration took major steps to regulate and reprimand for-profit colleges. DeVos, who has investments in the industry, opposes those accountability rules.
Not only is Kushner not alone, but he is working in an administration whose policies would make life more precarious for even more people. The priorities include a health care plan that would take insurance from tens of millions of people, a budget plan that would slash vital aid for up to one-fifth of all Americans, and a tax plan that would use those funds to lower rates for the wealthiest Americans. In turn, that precariousness opens new opportunities for those, like Kushner and Trump, who will not hesitate to exploit vulnerable people for profit.
The past eight years of Democratic government were far from perfect, but liberal policymakers were at least attuned to the reality of exploitation and the need for policies and protections to stop and punish the businesses that work to make life more difficult, and more expensive, for ordinary Americans. Like President Trump’s “university,” Jared Kushner’s history in the low-income housing market is a reminder: With this White House, we don’t just have an indifference to exploitation—we have an administration of actual predatory capitalists eager to reshape the government in their image, for their interests.