Morning Read 4/4: Court okays lawsuit against Germany over Nazi art theft

The Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude is part of the contested 'Guelph Treasure' stolen by Nazis [Cleveland Museum of Art]
The Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude is part of the contested ‘Guelph Treasure’ stolen by Nazis [Cleveland Museum of Art]

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Trump, Welcoming Egypt’s Sisi, Says ‘We Agree on So Many Things’

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump provided a boost to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi on Monday, giving him a warm welcome to the White House as his administration shifts the U.S. focus in its relationship with Cairo away from human rights while emphasizing security cooperation.

The visit appeared to go well for the Egyptian leader: He received coveted photos posing with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office and walking down the White House colonnade, while neither Mr. Trump nor White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made any public mention of Egypt’s spotty human rights record.

“The president recognizes…that’s best discussed privately,” Mr. Spicer said. “I’m not going to get into what they discussed privately. But I will tell you we understand the concern and I think those are the kinds of things that I think progress is made privately.”

Mr. Trump praised Mr. Sisi throughout the day, saying that he has “done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation” as they sat side by side in the Oval Office.

“We agree on so many things,” Mr. Trump said in the Oval Office Monday, as he sat beside Mr. Sisi on what was the Egyptian leader’s first official visit to Washington. “You have a great friend and ally in the United States and in me.”

Mr. Sisi said he has deep appreciation for Mr. Trump’s “unique personality” and praised the American president’s efforts to counter what Mr. Sisi described as an evil ideology that is “terrorizing innocent people.” Mr. Sisi said Egypt will always be a “strong partner” in confronting terrorism. [WSJ]

Eleven killed in suspected suicide bombing on Russian metro train

A blast in a St Petersburg train carriage on Monday that killed 11 people and wounded 45 was carried out by a suspected suicide bomber with ties to radical Islamists, Russia’s Interfax news agency cited a law enforcement source as saying.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was in the city when the blast struck, visited the scene of the explosion late on Monday night and laid a bunch of red flowers at a makeshift shrine to the victims.

Witnesses said they saw passengers who were bloodied and burned spilling out of the train, the door of which was buckled by the force of the explosion, and lying on a platform while smoke filled the station.

Russia has experienced bomb attacks carried out by Islamist rebels from Russia’s North Caucasus region in the past. The rebellion there has been largely crushed, but Russia’s military intervention in Syria has now made it a potential target for attacks by the Islamic State group, security experts say.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Officials said they were treating the blast as an act of terrorism, but there was no official confirmation of any link to Islamist radicals.

If it is confirmed that the bomb was carried out by radical Islamists, the Kremlin is likely to argue the attack underlines the importance of its campaign in Syria, where it is backing President Bashar al-Assad in a fight against Islamist militants.

However, some sections of Russian society could see the metro bombing as proof that Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria has again made Russian civilians into targets.

Two years ago, Islamic State said it had brought down a plane carrying Russian tourists home from a Red Sea resort. All 224 people on board the flight were killed. [REUTERS]


SEOUL, South Korea — A senior North Korean defector has told NBC News that the country’s “desperate” dictator is prepared to use nuclear weapons to strike the United States and its allies.

Thae Yong Ho is the most high profile North Korean defector in two decades, meaning he is able to give a rare insight into the secretive, authoritarian regime.

According to Thae, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is “desperate in maintaining his rule by relying on his [development of] nuclear weapons and ICBM.” He was using an acronym for intercontinental ballistic missiles — a long range rocket that in theory would be capable of hitting the U.S.

“Once he sees that there is any kind of sign of a tank or an imminent threat from America, then he would use his nuclear weapons with ICBM,” he added in an exclusive interview on Sunday.

Thae was living in London and serving as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom when he and his family defected to South Korea and were announced to the world in August.

He was not directly involved in North Korea’s weapons program but believes his country “has reached a very significant level of nuclear development.” [NBC]

Syrian chemical attack kills scores, injures 200

Dozens of civilians, among them children, were killed and more than 200 were injured in an airstrike early Tuesday that released “toxic gas” on a town in northwest Syria.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group, put the number of dead at 58, although unconfirmed reports said over 100 were killed.

The nature of the substance has yet to be confirmed, but a British doctor at the scene tweeted that the chemical released was sarin gas.

The Syrian Coalition, an opposition group based outside the country, said government planes carried out the airstrike on Khan Sheikhoun, south of the city of Idlib, the provincial capital. Rights groups have long accused President Bashar Assad of deploying chemical weapons against his own citizens.

Syrian opposition groups demanded that the United Nations investigate the attack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the deaths of 11 children from chemical exposure, but footage posted on Twitter showed some 20 young children lying motionless in a room. [ToI]

U.S. carries out additional strikes in Yemen: Pentagon spokesman

The United States has carried out about 20 additional strikes in Yemen against al Qaeda militants since the middle of last week, a Pentagon spokesman said on Monday.

Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters that since Feb. 28, the United States has carried out more than 70 strikes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) “militants, infrastructure, fighting positions and equipment.” [REUTERS]

Poland accuses Russian air traffic controllers over Smolensk plane crash

Polish prosecutors said on Monday they would press charges against two Russian air traffic controllers of deliberately contributing to a 2010 plane crash that killed Poland’s president and 95 other people.

The crash near Smolensk in western Russia killed the Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, as well as the central bank chief, top army commanders and several lawmakers.

An inquiry by the previous government returned a verdict of pilot error, but the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Kaczynski’s twin brother Jaroslaw, has said the crash may have been caused by an explosion on board.

The prosecutors said on Monday that a new analysis of recordings of conversations between the pilots and Russian controllers justified pressing the charges.

“An analysis of the evidence … has allowed prosecutors to formulate new charges against air traffic controllers, citizens of the Russian Federation,” Polish Deputy Prosecutor General Marek Pasionek told a news conference.

Referring to the accusations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday that circumstances of the tragedy have already been thoroughly studied and it was “certainly not possible to agree with such conclusions”.

Russia has so far refused to return the wreckage of the jet to Poland, a member of NATO and the European Union, citing its own continuing investigation. [REUTERS]

Boeing Agrees to First Plane Sale to Iran Under Trump

LONDON — Boeing Co. has agreed to sell planes to an Iranian airline for the first time since U.S. President Donald Trump, a critic of closer ties with Tehran, took office.

Boeing said it had signed a memorandum of agreement with Iran Aseman Airlines for the potential sale of up to 60 Boeing 737 Max single-aisle planes. Plane deliveries would begin in 2022, the company said Tuesday.

The transaction, which still needs to be approved by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, an arm of the Treasury Department, could become a high-profile test case for the Trump administration and its willingness to allow U.S. companies to do business in Iran. [WSJ]


U.S. sanctuary cities weigh response to Trump’s threat to curb funding

Officials from so-called sanctuary cities met in New York on Tuesday to discuss their response to threats from the Trump administration to cut off some funding to cities and states that fail to assist federal authorities in arresting illegal immigrants.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened on Monday to strip U.S. Justice Department grants from cities and other local governments that choose to shield illegal immigrants from deportation efforts under President Donald Trump.

His remarks were aimed at dozens of cities and other local governments, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, that have joined a growing “sanctuary” movement aimed at protecting immigrant communities.

Tuesday’s meeting in New York marked the second straight day of brainstorming on the immigration issue by leaders of some of America’s biggest urban centers

Sanctuary cities in general offer safe harbor to illegal immigrants and often do not use municipal funds or resources to advance the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Sanctuary city is not an official designation.

Federal records show the Justice Department doled out $1 billion to state governments and $430 million to nonprofits in 2016, but only $136 million directly to cities and counties.

Crime is generally lower in sanctuary counties, according to a study presented by University of California San Diego assistant professor Tom Wong. He said the findings echoed those of law enforcement officials themselves, since they have found they are more effective when they can focus on day-to-day policing instead of immigration enforcement. [REUTERS]

Iowa’s Largest Insurer Says It Will Withdraw From Obamacare Exchanges

In the latest move by insurers worried about the viability of the markets created under the federal health care law, Iowa’s major carrier said Monday that it would stop selling individual policies in the state next year.

In a statement, the insurer, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which is based in Des Moines, blamed its decision to withdraw in 2018 on what it said was the high cost of covering people under the Affordable Care Act.

Like some other insurers, Wellmark says it has had difficulty making money because many of those enrolling in its plans have expensive medical conditions. The company said it had lost $90 million over the past three years of providing coverage on the exchanges and individually, despite aggressively raising its rates.

While Wellmark’s chief executive, John Forsyth, emphasized the importance of stabilizing the markets, he said the current uncertainty over their future was one reason the company decided to exit. “While there are many potential solutions, the timing and relative impact of those solutions is currently unclear,” he said. “This makes it difficult to establish plans for 2018.”

Republicans have repeatedly vowed to repeal the law enacted during the Obama administration, but the House Republican bill that would have replaced it failed last month. Some insurers had praised the plan as providing much-needed support over the next year or two, and have voiced concerns about what steps, if any, President Trump and Congress would take to stabilize the markets. [NYT]

U.S. court approves lawsuit against Germany over claims of Nazi art theft

A U.S. federal judge has allowed a lawsuit to proceed against Germany over claims of the Nazi-era theft from Jewish dealers of a celebrated collection of gilded medieval art treasures.

It was the first time a U.S. court had agreed to hear Nazi art theft claims against Germany, said Nicholas O’Donnell, an attorney for the heirs of three Jewish art dealers who say the Nazis terrorized their families in 1935 into selling the collection at far below market price.

Germany had asked for the case to be thrown out, arguing that a U.S. court did not have jurisdiction to deal with the matter.

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled on Friday, however, in federal court in Washington that since the Nazis’ organized plunder of Jewish property was part and parcel of their later genocide of the Jews – a crime under international law – the court had jurisdiction to hear the case.

Germany argued the case had already been heard before a German commission assessing Nazi-era property claims, which found the low sales price was a product of a collapse in the art market during the Great Depression – not because the Jewish art collectors were persecuted.

“This is a dispute that was already resolved on the merits in Germany, and it doesn’t belong in a U.S. court,” Germany’s attorney, Jonathan Freiman, said in an email.

The Welfenschatz was collected for centuries by the Brunswick Cathedral in Brunswick, Germany, according to court records. In 1929, a group of Jewish art dealers in Germany bought the art from the Duke of Brunswick.

Six years later, the dealers sold the art to the state of Prussia, then being administered by prominent Nazi official Hermann Goering. Pressure from the Nazis caused the dealers to sell for just 35 percent of its market value, lawyers for the heirs said. [REUTERS]


New York State Budget Deal Remains Elusive; Emergency Legislation Passes

ALBANY—With a New York state budget deal still elusive, the Legislature on Monday passed emergency legislation to keep state government running as finger-pointing and tensions ramped up at the Capitol.

The measure came as Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces the latest budget of his tenure and one of the messiest legislative stalemates since he took office in 2011.

The temporary budget extender, issued by the governor, keeps government operations running until May 31, two months after the fiscal year ended. It buys lawmakers time to reach agreements on the state’s roughly $160 billion spending plan and a number of social policies with it.

Without an extender or a new budget, state government could have effectively shut down, with funding for state agencies and employees thrown into flux.

Legislators didn’t appear any closer to consensus and spent the day decrying the process as chaotic, rushed and secretive. Some blamed the governor; others blamed each other. [WSJ]

NYPD has refused all ICE detainer requests this year

Federal immigration authorities have made 109 requests to the NYPD to detain people since Jan. 1 — and the city hasn’t helped out on any of them.

Larry Byrne, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner on legal matters, revealed the figure Monday.

“We’ve honored zero of them so far, none,” he said.

Byrne added that only three of the requests qualified for assistance under the city law providing sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.

Part of the law allows the NYPD to hold someone for 48 hours while Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents obtain a warrant.

“In all three of those instances, the person was transferred to the custody of the Department of Corrections before the 48-hour time elapsed,” Byrne said. “So we honored zero detainers.”

President Trump has vowed to withhold federal funding to sanctuary cities that don’t cooperate with his efforts to deport more undocumented immigrants with criminal records. [NYP]

City sees historic lows in major crimes: NYPD report

The NYPD on Monday reported a historic new low in major crimes for any first three months of a year — although bias incidents continue to rise.

The city experienced seven fewer murders — or a 10.2 percent decrease — compared to the same period last year, officials said. There also were 42 fewer shootings, for a 22 percent decrease.

Overall, there were 1,219 fewer so-called “index” crimes — including murder, and shootings — for a 8.8 percent drop since Jan. 1, officials said.

“The continued reduction of violent crime across the five boroughs is nothing short of remarkable, with this past quarter being the safest in the Comp-Stat era,” Mayor de Blasio announced during a press conference on Randall’s Island.

The NYPD instituted its computerized crime-statistics program in 1994.

Still, hate-fueled incidents remained on the rise, and transit crime also increased for the month of March, officials said.

The city saw 225 Transit Bureau crimes reported in March 2017, compared with 178 in March 2016, for a 26.4 percent hike. Rapes experienced a slight uptick, with 104 in March 2017 compared with 101 in March 2016, for a 3 percent increase, cops said.

Hate crimes also have doubled so far this year, with 144 reported through April
2 versus 72 in the same period last year. Most of the crimes were anti-Semitic, cops said.

“We investigate each one,” said NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce.

Still, the month of March saw large overall crime decreases over the same month in 2016.

      Index crimes: 7,253 vs. 7,948, or an 8.7 percent drop.

      Murders: 18 vs. 28, for a 35.7 percent reduction.

      Shootings: 48 vs. 67, for a 28.3 percent decrease.

      Robberies: 949 vs. 1,168, down 18.8 percent.

      Felonious assaults: 1,528 vs. 1,611, or 5.2 percent fewer.

      Burglaries: 907 vs. 1,036, down 12.5 percent.

      Grand larcenies:3,329 vs. 3,588, or a 7.2 percent drop.

      Grand-theft auto: 418 vs. 416, for an increase of .5 percent. [NYP]

NJ Transit Train Derails at NYC’s Penn Station

For the second time in less than two weeks, a minor train derailment inside New York Penn Station snarled commuter travel from the morning rush into the evening hours, causing delays for thousands of people and forcing frustrated riders to find alternate ways home.

The trouble started around 9 a.m. on Monday when Northeast Corridor train 3926 from Trenton, N.J., experienced a “slow-speed derailment,” according to a NJ Transit spokeswoman.

The train was carrying about 1,200 passengers; the Fire Department of New York reported four injuries. The derailment is still under investigation, according to NJ Transit and a spokesperson for the Federal Railroad Administration. [WSJ]


Report: Obama adviser Susan Rice requested Trump aides’ names in intel reports

White House lawyers discovered last month that Susan Rice, a national security adviser in the Obama administration, requested that identities of U.S. citizens be revealed in raw intelligence reports connected to President Trump’s transition team, according to a Monday Bloomberg View report.

U.S. officials told Bloomberg that the White House discovered Rice’s requests during a National Security Council review of how the government handles the “unmasking” of American citizens whose communications and information are incidentally collected in broader foreign surveillance. Those names are normally redacted in reports.

Foreign officials discussing the Trump transition, as well as conversations between foreign officials and Trump aides, were reportedly monitored during the government’s usual surveillance work.

Some of the conversations monitored included information related to whom the Trump team met with, the foreign policy views of some Trump associates and plans for the new administration.
Bloomberg reported that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the National Security Council senior director for intelligence, spearheaded the review into unmasking policies and first learned that Rice made multiple requests about individuals who were connected with the Trump transition.

Cohen-Watnick then notified the White House General Counsel office of Rice’s actions. [THEHILL]

Paul calls on Rice to testify after reports of unmasking, asks if she was ordered by Obama

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Monday that President Obama’s former national security adviser Susan Rice should testify on new reports that she sought to “unmask” the names of President Trump’s transition officials caught up in surveillance.

Paul, on Twitter, called the reports on Rice a “smoking gun.” The Hill reported on his calls for her to testify.

Paul was referring to reports by Fox News, Bloomberg and others that Rice sought to disclose the Trump associate names. Those names were apparently sent to members of the National Security Council and the heads of the CIA and National Intelligence.

“I don’t think we should discount how big a deal it was that Susan Rice was looking at these, and she needs to be asked: Did President Obama ask her to do this? Was this a directive from President Obama?” Paul reportedly said. [FOXNEWS]

Gorsuch battle heads to Senate floor as Democrats vow filibuster

It’s now up to Senate Republicans whether Neil Gorsuch gets confirmed to the Supreme Court this week.

Senate Democrats locked down enough votes on Monday to filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination on the Senate floor, shifting the focus to the GOP majority and its vow to confirm Gorsuch by week’s end, one way or another.

To do so, Republicans will have to invoke the so-called nuclear option to change longstanding Senate precedent by a simple majority of the chamber so that filibusters of Supreme Court nominees can be cut off with just 51 votes, not 60. It’s the same maneuver Republicans chastised then-Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Democrats for deploying in another heated nominations battle in 2013.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can only lose two GOP senators on a vote to use the nuclear option, but no Republican has said they would oppose the controversial parliamentary move — even as they openly acknowledge that they may regret doing so.

“I have terrible qualms,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who as a member of the Gang of 14 staved off a nuclear battle over judicial nominees during the George W. Bush administration, said in an interview. “Democrats are obviously paying a heavy price for what Harry Reid did, and I believe we will pay a price for this.”

Nevertheless, McCain will go nuclear: “I have no choice,” he said.[POLITICO]

Trump donates first-quarter salary to National Park Service

President Donald Trump, who made a fortune in real estate before running for political office, has decided to donate his first-quarter salary of $78,333 to the National Park Service, the White House announced on Monday.

During the presidential campaign, Trump said he would donate his $400,000 annual salary if he were elected. [REUTERS]

Trump Urges Scrutiny of Alleged Spying on His Transition Team

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump and his supporters in Congress said they hoped investigators scrutinize whether Obama administration officials improperly spied on members of his team during the transition and requested that the identities of Trump staff members be revealed, or “unmasked,” in intelligence reports chronicling the surveillance.

Mr. Trump said on Twitter Monday that the “real story” is improper surveillance of his team by the Obama administration during the transition.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Monday that the administration’s concerns about the Obama administration’s role in unmasking identities in the intelligence reports is moving in a “troubling direction.” He declined to comment further.

Mr. Spicer declined to comment specifically on allegations published by a Bloomberg News columnist and by Fox News that former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, requested to unmaskthe names of Mr. Trump’s associates caught up in incidental surveillance collection.

Ms. Rice declined to comment. [WSJ]

Trump aides, lawmakers hold talks to revive healthcare bill

Top White House officials met moderate and conservative Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday in an effort to revive a plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Key members of the administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, invited a group of moderate Republicans known as the “Tuesday Group” to the White House. Pence then went to Capitol Hill to meet the Freedom Caucus, a group of House conservatives who last month derailed a healthcare bill backed by President Donald Trump.

The White House would like to see a revised bill come up for a vote as early as week’s end, before the House breaks for a spring recess, and the text of the new proposal could be ready some time on Tuesday, lawmakers said.

“It was clear the president would be very happy come Friday to have this passed,” said U.S. Representative Chris Collins, a member of the Tuesday Group and a Trump ally.

“This could move fairly quickly,” he said. [REUTERS]


This is Israel’s Fence Against ISIS: One Small Sign And A Very Big Gap

The final section of a fence along Israel’s border with Jordan in the south, scheduled for completion within a few months, will apparently amount to nothing more than a tangle of barbed wire stretched along the ground and a small sign in Hebrew reading “border ahead, no passage.”

Two years ago, the cabinet approved construction of the fence, due to fears that global jihad operatives could easily cross the border from Jordan, coupled with fears that the Islamic State might set up shop in the kingdom. The decision was spurred in particular by plans to build a new international airport at Timna to replace the airports at Eilat and Ovda. The Timna airport will be situated just 200 meters or so from the border, so the cabinet concluded that a border fence, guarded by a battalion of combat soldiers, was essential to protect it.

The first section, which runs for 30 kilometers between Eilat and the future airport, resembles the fences on Israel’s borders with Egypt and with Syria. A few meters high, it is made of corrugated sheet metal and barbed wire attached to steel posts, and is equipped with sensors that feed into a monitoring system.

But a decision was made to halt construction after only 30 kilometers instead of sealing off the entire border. Thus anyone seeking to cross into Israel could simply go around that stretch and cross at the final section.

The first section cost some 200 million shekels ($55 million) to build. The cost of fencing the entire border is estimated at about three billion shekels.

Out of respect for the sensitivity of the Israeli-Jordanian relationship, the cabinet included in its resolution approving the fence’s construction an unusual provision, according to which the barrier would be entirely on the Israeli side of the border and “would not infringe on the sovereignty of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, or on its national interests, which will be respected.”

Israeli Ambassador to Jordan Einat Schlein recently gave a pessimistic assessment of Jordan’s situation in a briefing for Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. Her main reason for pessimism was the Syrian civil war, as a result of which large numbers of refugees have entered the kingdom.

In a statement, the Defense Ministry said it is complying with the cabinet resolution and creating a barrier along the Jordanian border that will stretch about 30 kilometers northward from Eilat. “The work is at a very advanced stage, and is expected to be completed in the next few months,” the statement said. [HAARETZ]



DETROIT (AP) — Passenger car sales plummeted again in March, dragging U.S. auto sales to their third straight monthly decline, a strong indication that years of sales growth have come to an end.

Sales for the month fell 1.6 percent to just over 1.55 million vehicles, surprising analysts who expected a small increase.

For now, anyway, the auto industry isn’t worried. It’s making solid money selling reams of SUVs and trucks to consumers who are loading up on expensive features. But some analysts see large inventories of cars as a looming problem. Car sales were down almost 11 percent, while truck and SUV sales rose 5.2 percent, according to Autodata Corp.

“Trucks and SUVs, although they did well, it’s still hard to make up the lack of car sales,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis for the car-buying website. “You can’t have the other side of the industry completely not performing well.”

Hyundai suffered the biggest decline at 8 percent, followed by Ford at 7.5 percent, as popular car models such as the Sonata and Fusion suffered big decreases. Fiat Chrysler sales tumbled 5 percent, Toyota fell 2 percent and Honda just under 1 percent. But Nissan sales rose over 3 percent, Volkswagen’s gained just under 3 percent and GM posted an increase of just under 2 percent, all helped by SUV sales.

Drawing in buyers required a lot of cash, low-interest loans and other incentives, however. Dealer stocks are growing because cars and trucks aren’t moving off the lots as fast as they did in the past. [AP]

Mylan Hit With Lawsuit Alleging It Overcharged EpiPen Patients

Mylan NV was hit Monday with a lawsuit alleging the drug company overcharged EpiPen patients as part of an illegal scheme to secure sales.

The lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status, is the latest fallout from patient anger over the cost of EpiPens, the lifesaving allergy treatments whose price Mylan has raised nearly 550% to $609 for a two-pack since it acquired EpiPen rights in 2007.

A Mylan spokeswoman declined to comment.

The complaint was filed in federal court in Seattle by the Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP law firm on behalf of three EpiPen patients. It follows a similar such pricing lawsuit that the firm filed in January against drug companies that make insulin. [WSJ]

Auction sites want to rent apartments to the highest bidder

Apartment-rental websites like the San Francisco-based Rentberry and Biddwell in Vancouver want to turn the apartment hunting process into an eBay-style auction, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The idea is to find an equilibrium in rental markets, either ones where tenants offer more than the posted rent or those where landlords at trying to fill vacancies. Some affordable-housing critics think it may drive up rents in areas that are already out of reach for many renters. And experts told the Journal that in markets like New York City where there’s already plenty of public information on the rental market, auction sites may have little effect on pricing.

When Rentberry launched in early 2016, the company said it would raise rents on average by 5 percent. But the company’s founder said tenants have actually saved 5.1 percent compared to listed prices in the 10 cities where it active.

It should be noted, though, that nationwide there is an oversupply of apartments, said Bozzuto Group executive Toby Bozzuto, who manages 60,000 apartments in the country.

Rentberry now charges a one-time fee of $25 for every completed deal. But it plans to charge a fee each month of 25 percent of the difference between those posted and the auction-winning rent to the landlord or tenant – whoever gets the better deal in the auction. [TRD]

04/04/2017 10:38 AM by David Kinzer
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