Radio Sputnik's Brian Becker and John Kiriakou, hosts of Loud and Clear, spoke to Matt Hill, an attorney representing the aggrieved Westminster tenants against Kushner and his companies, asking him to elaborate on what alleged wrongdoing is the basis for the class action lawsuit.
Hill described Westminster as engaging in a "fee churning scheme," in which tenants are slammed with additional fees and are not allowed to pay their rent until they manage to resolve those additional fees — creating scenarios in which tenants are forced to be late with their rent payments and incur yet more fees. "Then, that sometimes allows Westminster to say that the next tenant's rent payment is late, which then incurs another five percent late fee, which then incurs another set of additional fees that we contend are illegal and sets the tenant up again to go deeper and deeper into this black hole of fees," he explained.
"So that kind of fee churning scheme always keeps folks behind. And when you're looking at the market in Baltimore, where housing is increasingly unaffordable, we find that these kinds of fees really keep people from being able to live in their housing."
Hill explained the actions of Westminster as pure naked greed. "Landlords are in a business to make money, and if they can sense an opportunity to turn a profit by charging an additional fee, they certainly have every motive to try to get away with charging that fee."
"The more fees that they can collect, the more profit they're going to make — but the consequences for tenants is this repeated churning fees, and this snowballing effect in which you're constantly behind and don't know exactly how much you have to pay in order to avoid eviction."
Kiriakou mentioned that the scheme involves 15 different complexes totalling nearly 9,000 apartment units. Becker added that the case had achieved a high profile because of its attachment to Kushner, a prominent White House official, but that other instances of fee churning go on elsewhere in the country and attract much less attention.
Hill agreed, although he wasn't in a position to comment on the larger legal ramifications of the case. "Our suit is focused on what we allege are systemic illegal predatory practices across the board affecting the tenants who live in Westminster properties. Our focus is really making sure that that Westminster is no longer able to engage in what we consider a practice that is predatory and that ultimately deprives people of of scarce affordable housing."
Furthermore, Hill claimed, Westminster was also engaging in another illegal practice known as body attachment. He explained it thusly: "It's just what it sounds like. If you are a tenet, let's say you left the property and the landlord alleges that you still owe them for something — whether it's some sort of fee or they want to charge you for what we contend often are illegal cleaning fees. If you don't pay, there is a process where a landlord can seek assistance from the police to bring you in and hold you until you answer certain questions and talk about being responsive and paying up."
If this practice sounds at all familiar, it is extremely similar to debtors' prisons — institutions popular in Western European and US legal systems in the 19th century where those with unpaid debts were incarcerated until they could work off their debt. Debtors' prisons were made illegal by federal law in 1833, but remain in use to this day on the state level — mostly for those who fail to pay child support.
"It's definitely a practice that we think is really detrimental to hardworking folks who are just trying to make it day to day to pay off these sorts of alleged debts," Hill said. "You think that debtors prison is gone in the United States, but apparently it's alive and well."