Trump and the Tenants
In the early 1980s, Donald Trump had a dream of putting his personal stamp on the Manhattan skyline. It meant a lot to him to establish himself as something more than the son of Fred Trump.
He had been determined to show the world that he was far more crafty and a lot more ambitious than his father. Fred Trump had worked his own property magic in Brooklyn but son Donald wanted to show the world- and himself- that he was bigger than that. So, in a literal and figurative sense, Trump was ready to cross the bridge between middle-class hum-drum Brooklyn to the fabulous upper-class domains of Manhattan.
And in that regard, Trump had already made a name for himself with a string of home runs in the late 1970s, such as the development of property owned by the bankrupted Penn Central Railroad. As a twenty-eight-year-old unknown, Donald had to reply on his father's political connections to seal the deal. The project offered to Trump reportedly included a lot of sweeteners, like tax abatements.
That property would later become the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
Then, after establishing his reputation as a deal-maker with his own political connection, Trump was ready for his next golden opportunity.
Indeed, it was considered to be one of the city’s most desirable blocks.
And Trump had audacious ideas in his head. His proposal included the demolition of the building and its neighbor- which he also owned. He then planned to construct a luxury high-rise condominium complex facing Central Park. It must have seemed like money in the bank.
There was only one hitch.
The residents of the a 15-story, 80 apartment building refused to budge. They had no intention of being pushed out of their homes.
Nearly all of the tenants were paying well below market rates. To make matters worse, there were laws that protected tenants and those regulations stood in Trump's way of his dream. True they were sitting on a gold mine, but the law was on their side. No bully could force them out, or could he?
His first move was not to negotiate but, according to the lawyers for the tenants, to intimidate. He reportedly spread the rumor that all tenants were to be evicted from the premises immediately.
According to one tenant, one day Trump gathered them together and told them
"I am Donald Trump. Get out of our building."
Whether those were his exact words, we can never know. However, apparently, his attitude was that the tenants were little better than obstacles, or squatters on his premises.
It was to be a disastrous and expensive miscalculation on his part.
Trump and the Law
As our source points out, rent control regulations were actually written to guard tenants against the whims of landlords and the market. And that was essentially the case in this issue.
Even today, the state laws limit the owners rent increases. In addition, they guarantee the renters the right to stay. For Donald Trump, that amounted to a big headache.
Normally, property developers would attempt to buy out the tenants. It's a common tactic.
A large cash offer to vacate might have proved irresistible to many of them- particularly if it had been made before the tenants' association was formed and lawyers were hired.
But Trump thought he and Citadel management, (the company he had hired to manage the building) could save a fortune by a little DIY - Trump style. By intimidation and by what most people would consider underhanded tactics, Trump could force the tenants to submit.
There were legal but cheap tricks, like ordering the window of all vacant apartments be covered with aluminum foil. Tenants charged that this was designed to make the building look like a wreck in order to gain support for Trump's demolition plan.
In his defense, Trump said there wasn't anything illegal about the decision. Indeed, it was, he countered, a common thing to do with abandoned apartments..
Other actions were less defensible. Building maintenance was neglected, with leaks and broken appliances left unrepaired. Tenants claimed that elevators were disconnected, water was shut off.
One of Trump's managers who handled the day-to-day building maintenance supposedly put it this way:
What quality of service do you give to tenants that you're trying to get rid of?
Intimidation and Fear
As bad as that was, the tactics went beyond simple neglect.
There was also legal intimidation, tenants claimed to the newspapers and media. They claimed that Citadel was attempting to use the law as a weapon and a tool to harass the tenants.
For example, unjustified eviction notices from Mr. Trump’s lawyers were delivered to the building tenants. In one case, the tenant was told that he was late in his rental payment, when in fact, he was not. He proved it with a canceled check. In another case:
Others who had done construction on their apartments, with the approval of prior landlords, were told that they had 10 days to restore them to their original conditions.
It was clearly taking a more sinister turn. Some tenants claimed that the management company had hired detectives to investigate their private lives to find some reason to force them out.
Said the president of the tenants' committee,
"We were told by the superintendent that they were going to looking into our sex lives, our drinking.. is anyone a homosexual or lesbian.. where were all the weak spots of the tenants."
The intimidation proved to be ineffective and tenants and their lawyers simply dug their heels in.
Another bit more subtle approach Trump took was to try to convince to sell out in a panic, convincing them they would never get the kind of money they were asking.
They would eventually be forced out, they were told, and they had better take the offer while it last or they could very well be on the street with nothing at all. The attempt to create a stampede of fear had the opposite effect and forced the people of 100 Central Park South to come together in their mutual defense. In order words, they began interviewing lawyers.
Had they been slightly less affluent and less savvy, that option of fighting back would have been unlikely. As naive as they might have been, they were prepared to stick to the guns even in the face of the sophisticated PR campaign Trump launched against them.
The Very Generous Offer
The battle between the mogul and the tenants turned out to be an epic one.
Neither side in the war was afraid to use publicity and public pressure to get their side across. The apartment dwellers claimed that Trump would stop at nothing to get them out and they in turn they fought tooth and nail to save their homes, clinging with white knuckles to their property.
One particular tactic certainly reveals Trump's darker side.
In July 1982, Trump came up with an idea of his own for 100 Central Park South. Several tenants had died and more than a dozen apartments in the building were empty. Trump decided to offer the apartments to the city for use by homeless. Trump says that he was just being altruistic. ... At the same time, he acknowledged that installing homeless people at 100 Central Park South wasn't likely to make tenants happy and might even prompt some of them to move out.
Whatever Trump's motivation, no one was likely to view his offer as pure altruism. Sure enough, the city said no thanks.
Robert Trobe, an H.R.A. deputy administrator, ... refused the offer, a spokesman says, because ''it did not seem appropriate to house clients in a building slated for demolition.''
In effect, Trump would have utilized the homeless as a weapon in his war against the tenants, and then, after winning the battle, he (or more likely, a few hired thugs/management security guards) would have promptly returned them to the less dreamlike New York City sidewalks.
After the city's polite refusal, Trump told reporters:
''The apartments are there; they're heated; they've got hot and cold water; they have the most beautiful views."
He also added that city official should have taken him up on his offer because he was "totally serious."
When he was recently asked about the offer to house the homeless, Trump said:
“I actually thought it was a very generous offer. I don’t want to see people out on the streets.”
Like many things Trump has said, there is a prevailing unintentional irony. After all, here was a super-rich property developer supposedly offering shelter to the homeless while at the same time, desperately trying to turn obstinate tenants into.. well, homeless. All in order to build an apartment complex exclusively for the super rich.
Unsurprisingly, not everybody was convinced of Trump's sincerity. In fact, the offer sparked the interest of New York columnist Sydney Schanberg who decided to put Trump's sense of philanthropy to the test. Schanberg was doubtful that Trump's offer had been made from a sense of charity.
According to the 1985 article, Schanberg received a letter from one Charles Sternberg, who was the head of the International Rescue Committee. The letter sought a little advice from Schanberg about whether Trump makes might those vacant apartments available to Polish refugees who were in need of temporary housing.
Incidentally, Sternberg was himself a war refugee who fled his native Czechoslovakia in 1938, prior to the Nazi takeover. This was a man who, unlike the Trump, clearly had a passion for humanitarian causes. Furthermore, Sternberg knew what a bully looked like.
Journalist Schanberg was skeptical but replied that Sternberg should definitely write directly to Trump. Whether Trump read the letters or not is not certain. We do know that Sternberg's two letters went unanswered.
(Years later when he was asked, Trump said he didn't recall ever getting any of Sternberg's letters and knew nothing about the offer.)
For Schanberg, it was proof positive that Trump was never serious about helping the city's homeless. It had all been a PR stunt and a means of driving the tenants out.
For a later expose/documentary (which Trump successfully suppressed), Schanberg stated his verdict on the matter:
"Trump doesn't give a rat's hoot about poor people who might be living on sidewalks outside his building. He talks a good game, but he lacks character."
In March 1986, after a five-year battle, Mr. Trump officially abandoned his plans to demolish the building at 100 Central Park South.
Characteristically Trump found a way to paint his defeat into a victory. He told reporters that he had changed his plan because the knocking down the old building and constructing the new one would have taken several years.
By renovating the existing building, he said, he could "take advantage of the strong real-estate market now." As if the Manhattan property values for land overlooking Central Park would collapse at any time.
In fact, a few months before the announcement, Trump had withdrawn his application for eviction and demolition. for more than a year, Trump had been fighting charges of tenant harassment. Witnesses told the authorities of "deteriorating conditions in the building, including faulty elevators and bare light bulbs in hallways, and he showed a picture of mushrooms growing under a rug."
Meanwhile, an aide to Trump, Thomas Macari, was telling reporters that the tenants were simply engaging in "blackmail" and wouldn't have launched such an action if it hadn't been a man of as high a stature as Donald Trump.
After ten and a half months of hearings, the state of New York had decided that the tenants had probable cause of harassment.
To prevent that, Trump pulled out of the project altogether.
After Trump's announcement, New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal had, in turn, ordered him to offer tenants in rent-stabilized apartments an option choosing one- or two-year lease renewals. The tenants in rent-controlled apartments were not required to sign leases. In other words, the tenants had won and were allowed to remain, paying their existing rents.
When the news of the property developer's change of heart was announced, the tenants weren't fooled by Trump's posturing. They knew that he had dropped efforts to evict them because he knew he could not win.
''It means that we have won. He tried to throw the tenants into the streets and he can't do that.''
Trump then and Trump now doesn't like to hear those kinds of curbs on his exorbitant ambition. Laws, regulations, and protections must be demolished to satisfy his self-centered desires.
Eventually, Trump converted the building into condominiums and even today, decades later, the renters who fought Trump and won, still live in their apartments.
They must be watching this year's presidential election with a mixture of concern and amazement as the bully mogul appears poised to claim the nomination as his personal trophy.
One can see Mr. Trump waging a much different sort of campaign, but with many of the same tactics — the threats, the theatrics, the penchant for hyperbole- that he has deployed in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination.
Early in the campaign, the tenants could have given some advice to the Republican party,
Either you stand up to Trump using whatever tools you have or you will find yourself evicted from your own home.
Of course, now that option has passed. The GOP is learning the hard way what happens when you let Trump do as he likes.