(CNN) New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is launching an investigation to determine if White House senior adviser Jared Kushner's family real estate company harassed tenants at a Brooklyn waterfront property so that they would leave their rent-stabilized apartments, officials said on Monday.
The announcement by the Democratic governor comes after tenants at the Austin Nichols House on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg filed a lawsuit and said the company started major construction that released dangerous toxins in the air. They charge that the building was unlivable for tenants, with excessive noise and vermin running rampant, officials said.
"Governor Cuomo has zero tolerance for tenant abuse of any kind and we will aggressively take on landlords who try to intimidate people out of their homes," said New York State Homes and Community Renewal Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas.
Twenty current and former tenants of the property filed a lawsuit Monday seeking $10 million in punitive damages plus whatever a jury decides for compensatory damages.
"To circumvent New York City rent regulation laws it appears Kushner Companies commenced a deliberate campaign to systemically harass tenants out of their apartments using illegal and hazardous construction practices," said Aaron Carr, head of the nonprofit watchdog Housing Rights Initiative that was separately investigating the matter.
Construction at the location began in April of 2016.
Tenants reached out to Housing Rights Initiative about the Kushner Companies construction around June of 2017, Carr said. They conducted their own data analysis and determined that there was widespread lead, lung carcinogens and other poisonous cancer-causing materials, Carr said.
Then in April of 2018, attorney Jack Lester started working with tenants in hopes of filing the lawsuit. Lester said the cancerous particles were still present in the building, and in some apartments, more than a year after construction stopped.
"The tenants were enduring the conditions," said Lester of the residents when the construction started. "These were people that had just arrived in New York City, had just moved here and I guess they felt the best way to handle this was to just move out."
In a statement, a spokesman for Kushner Companies said the lawsuit is "totally without merit" and that residents "were fully informed about the planned renovation and all work was completed under the full supervision by the New York City Department of Buildings and other regulatory agencies, with full permits and with no violations for these claims."
The Kushner Companies spokesman also said, "Tenants were never pressured to leave their apartments and the market-rate rent stabilization was -- and continues to be -- complied with under applicable rent guidelines. Any complaints during construction (which was completed in 2017) were evaluated and addressed promptly by the property management team. The property management team is committed to continuing to meet the needs of all residents."
This story is breaking and will be updated.