AVELLA TO NYC: REJECT “OUTRAGEOUS” DEBT FORGIVENESS HELPING ONE OF NYC’S “WORST LANDLORDS”

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The Congregation Bet-El Sephardic Center of Jamaica Estates synagogue. (Photo by Frank G. Runyeon)

State Sen. Tony Avella urged New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to reject $250,000 in tax forgiveness pending city approval that will benefit Avi Dishi, a landlord once listed among the city’s worst.

As public advocate, de Blasio actually put Dishi on the city’s worst landlords list for his ownership of a building with chronic problems. Even today, that same building has 74 open violations and has now been sued 23 times by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development for issues like lead paint and no heat or hot water.

The New York City Department of Finance is poised to forgive the debt Dishi incurred, as the department is directed to do by a state law passed this summer that was authored by Assemblyman David Weprin and co-sponsored by state Sen. Leroy Comrie. The original bill was opposed by Avella.

Avella called on the mayor and the city finance commissioner to block the move in a letter on Wednesday.

“We’re reviewing the letter,” said Freddi Goldstein, a spokesperson for the mayor. The Department of Finance also said it is reviewing the letter.

The letter comes after an investigation by City & State that revealed how Dishi, a wealthy landlord, stands to benefit financially from the legislation and how the bill became law after Weprin accepted thousands of dollars from the landlord and his synagogue, Congregation Beth-El Sephardic Center of Jamaica Estates, which Dishi controls as its president. While the synagogue’s contribution appears to have violated state and federal laws that forbid political campaign activity by 501(c)(3) nonprofits, Weprin said he returned that contribution months later.

Experts said the timing of the payments to Weprin and the passage of the bill that Weprin shepherded through the state Capitol raises serious questions about whether Dishi improperly influenced Weprin to push the bill through.

Weprin and Dishi denied they had a deal. Weprin said accepting the synagogue’s donation was “a mistake.” Comrie declined to comment.

In his letter, Avella said City & State’s reporting “not only confirms my suspicions about this situation but reveals an even worse scenario than I had feared. The fact that the Congregation is seeking a religious exemption that will inappropriately, and potentially illegally, enrich Avi Dishi who has a history of serious and chronic building violations is outrageous and an offense against taxpayers of this city.”

“As both a sitting elected official and a New York City taxpayer, I urge you, if not implore you, to refuse to grant the retroactive religious property tax exemptions to the Congregation for any period prior to it becoming the lawful owner in December 2015,” Avella wrote in his letter.

The mayor’s office said that the Department of Finance was reviewing the matter and a finance department spokesperson said the agency was “not yet in any place to make a decision,” because it still waiting on requested information from the synagogue.

“It’s common practice for Albany to enact legislation to authorize tax relief for non-profits when warranted. The final decision is made at the discretion of the Department of Finance after careful review. This process will be no different,” Goldstein, the mayoral spokesperson, said in an email.

The mayor’s office said it was aware of the law and that it had not directed the Department of Finance to take any particular action. A spokesperson for the Department of Finance said they were reviewing the matter.

The New York City Department of Finance previously told City & State that as long as the synagogue submitted paperwork that showed it was acting as a nonprofit during the tax years in question, providing religious services for example, the department would approve the debt forgiveness.

The effect of this would be to erase property tax debt incurred by Dishi.

On the surface, the law forgives property taxes for the synagogue, but the real effect of the bill is to absolve Dishi of his personal tax liability, since he owned the building for the tax years in question.

Dishi owned the property from 2006 until the end of 2015, when he transferred it to the religious charity, which he controls. He is the president and five of seven board members are Dishi family members.

Avella also highlighted that the bill could also allow the city to forgive additional taxes in addition to the two years noted in the bill, which he said “is not only bad public policy but sets a precedent which can severely undermine property tax revenue for the City of New York.”

credit to cityandstateny.com