Michael Cohen, best known for being President Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and fixer, also has a history as a New York City landlord—one who allegedly engaged in tenant harassment, and falsified paperwork in order to quickly turn a profit on his buildings.
An investigation spearheaded by the nonprofit Housing Rights Initiative found that Cohen, who recently plead guilty to eight federal crimes related to tax evasion and campaign finance violations, purchased three rent-stabilized buildings in Manhattan and “commenced a deliberate campaign to systematically harass tenants out of their apartments using destructive, hazardous, and illegal construction practices, so he could dramatically raise rents,” according to a press release from HRI.
The three buildings—located at 237 Henry Street, 172 Rivington Street, and 235 East 27th Street—were each purchased by a shell corporation linked to Cohen, who continued to collect rent from each property’s tenants, per Department of Finance records. However, HRI found that in each case, Cohen submitted construction permits to the Department of Buildings claiming there were no rent-stabilized tenants—a tactic that allowed him to perform construction without DOB oversight.
Meanwhile, tenants in those buildings were lodging complaints with the DOB: At 172 Rivington, one complaint lodged in 2012 states “MY HALF STABILIZED HALF RECENTLY DESTABILIZED BUILDING (DUETO GUT RENOVATION) IS BEING USED AS A HOTEL & IS LISTED ON AIRBNB.COM”; at 237 Henry, several complaints of renovations being done without permits and of unsafe conditions were reported in the time that Cohen owned the building. Work continued at each, even as stop-work orders were issued.
Cohen eventually sold all three buildings, making a tidy profit in the process: He purchased 172 Rivington in 2011 for $2.1 million, and sold it in 2015 for $10 million, according to city records. HRI’s investigation found that the number of rent-stabilized units in each property had dropped by the time they were sold—at 237 Henry, for example, 15 regulated units were lost.
The tactics used by Cohen are quite common as a means of forcing rent-stabilized tenants out of their homes, and making apartments that were once regulated market rate. HRI has also conducted similar investigations into several properties owned by Kushner Companies, and purchased while Jared Kushner was still CEO, even spearheading class-action lawsuits on behalf of tenants at two buildings in Brooklyn Heights and one in Williamsburg, where residents say the firm used construction to harass and ultimately push out tenants.
Aaron Carr, the executive director of HRI, noted in a press release that it’s not just unscrupulous landlords who are to blame for these sorts of tenant harassment cases—a lack of oversight from the various agencies also led to the loss of those rent-stabilized units. “Our enforcement system is turning into a real estate protection system, and if we the public don’t turn things around, the Empire State will turn into an empire of fraud,” he said.