A MAGA-backed candidate for New Jersey governor turned his well-appointed home into a parsonage and is now living in it free of property taxes.
Phil Rizzo — who leads the tiny City Baptist Church in Hudson County — and his wife, Jennifer, paid $1.55 million in 2015 for a five-bedroom, seven-bath home on six secluded acres in New Vernon, Morris County, about 45 minutes away from the church. Two years later, the Rizzos sold the house for $1.65 million to City Baptist Church. Rizzo has said his family still lives in the house — property-tax free. Public records list it as a property tax-exempt parsonage, saving more than $15,000 in taxes per year in the state that has among the highest property taxes in the country.
Rizzo, who according to his online bio is a third generation real estate developer, ranks behind Jack Ciatterelli in the race for the Republican nomination, making him a longshot to become governor of the Garden State. The winner of that contest will face incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in November. On Twitter, Rizzo has espoused baseless claims about alleged voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election and conspiracy theories that left-wing activists were responsible for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Since selling the house to the church, the home has undergone luxury improvements, according to the Zillow listing. In September 2020, it was put up for sale, but the listing was withdrawn in November, according to Zillow. The asking price was $2.65 million.
“Builder is putting final touches on this stunning 5 bedroom home, all with private en suite baths,” the listing states. “The home has been totally renovated top to bottom.”
According to the listing, the house features three fireplaces, a six-burner Viking stove, two Sub-Zero freezers, a wet bar, a pond and a heated concrete swimming pool with attached hot tub. There’s also a detached two-car garage with some finished space inside.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Rizzo said that when he “decided to walk away” from his business of building and renovating homes, his church was not able to provide a salary.
“Instead, the church decided to purchase my home as an asset and allow my family and I to continue living there,” he said. “In addition, the home provided peaceful and beautiful acreage in Harding, out of the city, where we could bring our church and community for family dinners, picnics, games, Bible studies, and kids events. You can fault me for many things — just ask my kids! But I don’t believe this is one of them.“
Rizzo’s campaign declined to answer follow-up questions about how the church was able to raise the money to purchase his home, why it paid him more for the house than he paid for it, whether he or the church paid for the renovations and examples of recent church events he held at the home.
The house is now exempt from property taxes, according to public records. According to the Zillow listing, it was assessed at $1.37 million in 2018 and the property taxes were $15,388. According to public records, the house was assessed at nearly $1.84 million in 2020.
Rizzo’s candidacy for governor has been backed by some of New Jersey’s pro-Trump personalities, including radio host Bill Spadea, who emceed a recent fundraiser for him, and former Ocean County GOP Chair George Gilmore, whose influence waned after he was convicted of three federal tax offenses, but was pardoned by then-President Donald Trump in January.
Rumors about Rizzo’s home have been circulating on the internet, and Rizzo was asked about it last month during a Republican event in Hudson County by a reporter for an internet news show. The question referred only to his living in a tax-free house and not to its luxurious amenities.
“As a third generation real estate developer and somebody who owns a small business, I know plenty about paying taxes. Now, my church is a small church. They don’t pay me a very big salary,” Rizzo said in response to the question. “… So our church owns my home, and it is tax free. It’s completely by the book. We had attorneys look at it. We had accountants look at it. It is by the book. I’m not doing anything to save money or to make money that’s going to land me in trouble. … And so we were able to accept the benefit according to the tax law of New Jersey.”
It’s not clear what Rizzo’s salary is. His church has a Hoboken post office box and a small storefront in North Bergen. According to the church’s website, it has only one other person on its staff.
POLITICO called the number on the real estate listing and reached Jennifer Rizzo.
“We just changed our minds, and we took it off the market,” Jennifer Rizzo said when asked why the real estate listing was pulled.
Jennifer Rizzo declined to answer additional questions about the house.