Adi Talwar

With less than a month to go, the race for the 13 District City Council seat in the Bronx has intensified, as candidates call out Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj over financial contributions to his campaign.

Three-term incumbent James Vacca is set to leave office because of term limits, and Gjonaj appears to be in the lead to replace the councilman, having raised a total of over $600,000, which puts him at a clear advantage over his opponents.

However, many of his campaign contributions have come from members of the real-estate sector and from outside the district and city. His opponents claim the donations demonstrate that Gjonaj may not be running with the interest of the residents of District 13 in mind.

One donation that stands out comes from Martin Scharf, who has a controversial history as a landlord in the Bronx. In 2015, Gjonaj, along with Senator Jeffrey Klein, called on New State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate Scharf for what they described as “flagrant harassment” and “unlawful eviction” of residents at 3555 Bruckner Boulevard in The Bronx.

Scharf and his company Abro Management are alleged to have threatened and intimidated tenants who made complaints, neglected to make proper repairs to units in the building, failed to properly credit rent reductions and served residents with false eviction notices.

“The property owners have shown absolutely no respect or consideration for the families that live in these buildings, I hold the property owners responsible for their actions and fight for the tenants that seek to live in a safe, comfortable and peaceful home,” said Gjonaj in a statement at the time.

However in May of this year Gjonaj received a donation of $2,750—the maximum permitted donation to a Council campaign—from Martin Scharf and the same amount from another Abro employee, Richard Scharf. The Gjonaj campaign refunded all but $250 (the maximum donation allowed under city campaign rules from people deemed to be “doing business” with the city) to each man. The Gjonaj campaign accepted in full a $2,500 donation in July from Martin Scharf’s wife.

During a debate on Aug. 14 on BronxNet TV opponents also called out Gjonaj for receiving a $500 donation from Michael D’Alessio, the owner of a commercial building on 2800 Bruckner Boulevard. D’Alessio has come under fire after tenants of the building received 30 days notice to vacate for what could possibly become a detox or supportive housing center. Tenants say that soon after the 30-day notice was given mattresses and furniture began arriving at the building. (The donation to Gjonaj, however, came seven months before the story about D’Alessio’s building broke.)

Rivals also point out that Gjonaj has received over 50 percent of his $615,773.40 raised from campaign donors outside of the district.

“We all know that money buys influence in the political process and it’s important that our neighbors have a council member who’s fighting for them, not a greedy fellow developer,” said Democratic opponent John Doyle, who has been Gjonaj’s biggest critic, referring to Gjonaj’s background as a real-estate owner and broker.

Joining Gjonaj on the democratic ballot in the race is Doyle who is the former Director of Community Affairs for State Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeffrey Klein and now a public affairs official at Jacobi Medical Center; Marjorie Velazquez, a Democratic District Leader and an executive board member of the Chippewa Democratic Club in the 82nd Assembly District, who is endorsed by Vacca and Speaker of the New York City Council Melissa Mark Viverito; and Edigio Semintelli, a community activist who, in 2013, took on developers of a Pelham Bay building that served as a shelter for displaced mental patients. The sole Republican in the race is John Cerini, owner of a family-run business, “Bronx Tax Man,” that opened 30 years ago.

While issues of development and housing are usually most associated with the South Bronx, neighborhoods like Pelham Bay, Throggs Neck and Morris Park have seen major changes in recent years. The district has seen an array of residential developments across Pelham Bay and commercial and office centers like the Hutchinson Metro Center and the Throggs Neck Shopping Mall have also popped up. The possible development of the Whitestone Cinema complex is also one of concern.

The wave of development is, according to Doyle, “bleeding out the rent-regulated apartments” not just in District 13, but across the entire borough.

“As the Bronx deals with gentrification forces, rents will rise, often pricing out working and middle income residents. This changes the character of our neighborhood as it has changed other neighborhoods throughout the city,” he says.

Gjonaj’s campaign remains adamant in his defense, letting his opponents know during the recent debate that he “can’t be bought” and citing as proof of his pro-tenant bona fides his introduction of the Tenant Rent Increase Exemption program bill, which would protect families making less than $50,000 from rent increases.

“It is unfortunate that Mark Gjonaj’s opponents continue to put out fake news and distorted facts rather than remain focused on the issues at hand. Mark has always prided himself on being a hands-on elected official who works to improve the lives every Bronxite. Mark continues to fight tirelessly for the community he represents whether it be tenants, homeowners, seniors, working families, or civil servants. Mark Gjonaj is NOT FOR SALE,” Jennifer Blatus, spokesperson for Gjonaj, told City Limits.

Gjonaj’s voting records show contradictions on housing and development issues.

On June 14, Gjonaj voted no on a bill that would haverepealed the 1997 vacancy-deregulation law and re-regulated 98 percent of the apartments that have been lost to rent stabilization. Under this laws, landlords can increase rents on vacant units by 20 percent.

“He is absolutely unwilling to support strong tenant protection, because he is a landlord and his family are landlords. It’s not anything unusual, even though he denies it, but we are not going support a candidate that supports vacancy deregulation,” says Michael McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC. (TenantsPAC has endorsed Velazquez).

However, the same day as the vote on the decontrol repealer, Gjonaj voted yes on two other pro-tenant bills: one to eliminate the vacancy bonus that landlords of regulated apartments can now charge when someone moves out, and another to restrict landlords’ ability to withdraw preferential rents.

Development and housing are not the only issues on the agenda for the candidates, but it is currently the strongest talking point in the race. “I’ve known Mark for 10 years and I’m not going to sit here and say he’s not a good guy, but he takes money from some of the worst people on earth who have no interest in the Bronx quality of life issues. They are into in their own bottom line,” said Doyle to City Limits.