On November 3rd, Ward D/Heights residents will cast votes for a person to fill the remaining year on late councilman Michael Yun’s term, which expires on December 31, 2021. The seat is temporarily being held by Yousef Saleh, who was appointed by mayor Fulop. Saleh, along with four other people, have declared their intentions to run. Local attorney and activist Cynthia Hadjiyannis was the first to accept Jersey City Times’ request for an interview.
JCT: Good morning, Cynthia, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Can you give us a short summary of where you grew up and your educational background, your work history?
Hadjiyannis: So, I am originally from Massachusetts, and my family moved to South Jersey when I was about 12, and I went to high school in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and then I went back to Massachusetts for college. I went to Wellesley College. I actually was a science double major—biology and Soviet studies. I wasn’t really planning on becoming a lawyer when I first went to college, and I had a lot of years where I couldn’t quite find my niche. I was trying different things all the time. So, I worked in a laboratory, I worked at the Kennedy School of Government and International Relations, I started graduate school—a graduate program at Michigan for political science—and then I eventually went to law school. I went to Rutgers for law school and I finished in ’98, and I passed the New York and the New Jersey Bars, and I’ve been a lawyer for about 20 years or actually 22 years.
And let’s see, my first job was a clerk. I came to Jersey City fresh out of law school in ’98, and my first job was at the William Brennan Courthouse here in Jersey City, and I worked for this wonderful judge. His name is Carmen Maisano, and then I went into private practice after I finished my clerkship, and I worked in commercial arbitration and litigation, and I kind of enjoyed that. I started off at the New Jersey firm, but then I went with the New York firm and it was an international firm. So, I was trying to kind of make my interest in international relations integrate with my law practice, and I did that for about five or six years, and then I went on my own, and I’m a small town lawyer now.
JCT: Your practice has revolved around what kind of work?
Hadjiyannis: Well, now it’s a mix. I started off in litigation, but now it’s a mix of certain types of litigation, real estate, and then things that are the nexus between real estate and litigation. I do some land use, I do tax appeals, I do construction and building violations, and zoning, and I have a niche, which is challenging development approvals on behalf of community groups and neighbors.
JCT: And give us some examples of some of the cases you’ve worked on.
Hadjiyannis: Well, I had one in West New York. Some of them, it’s hard because it’s an uphill battle with these things, but I had one in West New York, it goes back a while, it might have been 2008, where they were planning to build a giant tower on Boulevard East. It was zoned mid-rise, but it was basically a regular residential neighborhood where people had row houses and they wanted to do, I think it was a 12- or 13-story building, and a group of neighbors banded together. They were wonderful clients, and we didn’t succeed at the trial level, but we went up on appeal, and we got the development approval voided for the project. I think to this day there is no tower on the lot.
JCT: You considered that a win?
Hadjiyannis: Yeah, yeah. It was really egregious. You know, some things are kind of marginal but, this was really just a pretty bad—it was, I think, triple what you were supposed to be allowed to do.
JCT: Sure. And you live in Ward D (obviously), and how long have you been in Ward D?
Hadjiyannis: Since 2003.
JCT: What would you say are the top three issues in Ward D?
Hadjiyannis: I think housing is a big one, zoning and development, and the local economy.
JCT: Do you want to expand on those, specifically the housing, for instance?
Hadjiyannis: When I first moved here I was able to buy a house for about a third of what it would cost now for the same house. I have a small row house. I lived Downtown, and once I got in a position where I had gotten started on my career and I’d gotten a handle on my student loans, I wanted to buy something, and I got priced out of the market Downtown, so I had this great option of looking in other neighborhoods in Jersey City, and I came to the Heights. I think now that is less and less of an option for people. A little two-bedroom condo is $700,000, and stuff is just really unaffordable, and it’s not like there is another neighborhood close by where people aren’t priced out of the market. I’m seeing people who can’t— young people who want to buy homes are priced out of the market. People who want to get an apartment can’t find an apartment.
So, I think there is not much affordable housing. Seniors and other people who could benefit from that, I think they’re having problems. There’s a very long waiting list.
JCT: Then you mentioned development. What are the issues there?
Hadjiyannis: So, I think the Heights is essentially a low-rise community, and we do not want to be like the Downtown, and we don’t want to be like Journal Square. We have something that people like, we have backyards, we have very walkable neighborhoods, we have a lot more greenery than other places in Jersey City, and I think people don’t want to lose that, and little by little backyards are getting filled in, street trees are being lost, every little square, every buildable lot is being upzoned so that where you used to have one house now there will be four condos squeezed into where there was a one-family.
I think that we’re having pressure coming from Hoboken and from Journal Square and along Kennedy to move more toward high-rise development, mid-rise or high-rise development that’s going to increase density a lot. And increases in density without the appropriate infrastructure leads to problems. We’re having those problems now. Parking, traffic, I forget what they call the combined sewer system. So, we’re encountering all those problems that come with high-density development without the right infrastructure.
JCT: And in terms of businesses you mentioned businesses being an issue. What would you identify there as being the problem?
Hadjiyannis: Well, it’s interesting, I have a lot to learn about that, but I have a small business. I actually run my law practice from home. And just with COVID, a lot of businesses have seen they don’t have the same volume that they used to have, and they’re struggling. And then I think on Central, I think there always was a fairly high vacancy rate, but I think it’s gotten higher now during COVID. I know the city is trying to do some things to support small business. I’d probably try to do more things in addition to what the city is doing to support businesses. I know in New York, this is something I have to think more about and learn more about and talk to the Central Avenue SID, but in New York I think they don’t allow landlords to leave commercial—they allow it, but they’re penalized when you leave a commercial storefront vacant for too long. So, I think we could probably use some more regulations to encourage landlords to rent at a market rate.
JCT: Right. And when it comes to those first couple of issues, I guess you mentioned affordability, do you have any ideas about how to make the neighborhood or Ward D more affordable?
Hadjiyannis: I don’t know. You probably know more about it than I do because there is this inclusionary zoning ordinance that has been languishing in the council committee for more than a year, and there seems to be a lot of discussion that doesn’t really cohere into an ordinance. And it needed to happen like 20 years ago before we had this development boom, and it didn’t, but it’s like we really shouldn’t let more time go by. The council needs to come together to support a version of that ordinance whatever it is so that it starts, so that we don’t have more development without affordability becoming a component of it.
I think they’re working on it, but they need to do it faster, and I think I would try to work with the council to get something we can pass. Then I want to make sure it actually impacts affordability. Like right now, I think the version of the ordinance that has been floated—it’s questionable whether it really does anything to help the people who need it most. They were talking about a range of what would constitute affordable housing, and they were saying people would be eligible, I guess, who were between 80%, or I guess the projects have to market to people with 80% to 120% of adjusted median—I forget the phrase, it’s AMI, it’s like average median income.
And so, I think the version of the ordinance now allows developers to meet the affordable housing requirements by building what is basically market-rate housing. If you’re between 80 to 100% of the average median income, you may not be the person who needs affordable housing the most.
So, I think we have to get that ordinance geared toward helping people who need affordable housing, but then I think we need something else that helps people who have under 80% AMI. So, I’d want to look at those options and maybe that can’t be, maybe those have to be public works projects, maybe there is no incentive for developers to build projects that are for people with less than 80% AMI. That might not work as part of an inclusionary zoning ordinance, but I think we’ll need to investigate other types of housing.
JCT: And what about on the density construction issue? Is this just a zoning question?
Hadjiyannis: A lot of the Heights is zoned R1, which is zoned for one- and two-family dwellings. So, even Kennedy is supposed to be R1, one- and two-family dwellings. Then developers go to the zoning board with projects that are much bigger than what they’re allowed to do, and the zoning board often dispenses variances. They’re supposed to be an independent land use board, so as a councilperson I couldn’t really control what the zoning board does, but I think to maybe get some members of the zoning board, like people appointed to the zoning board that are more sensitive to people in the community and don’t feel like it’s their job to okay everybody’s application.
I think that would be a good start, and I think as a councilperson I would try to empower the neighbors in the community groups to participate more in that process. And then even long before it got to the board, I would want to help facilitate communication between groups of neighbors and developers who want to come in and do something more than what they’re allowed to do.
JCT: Now let me ask you about citywide issues. If you were to name the top three citywide issues that you’d like to take on or that you think are burning issues right now, what would they be?
Hadjiyannis: That’s interesting, no one’s asked me that yet. I would say some of these racial equality issues we’ve been dealing with this, now, the whole summer. I think it’s really in the forefront of everybody’s consciousness. I think zoning and development is a citywide issue. I do get calls from all over the city from people who want help with tear downs, with giant projects they feel are inappropriate. So, I would say zoning and development is a citywide issue. I would say the school budget and funding our school system.
JCT: On the racial justice issues, are you in favor of proposals to cut the public safety budget?
Hadjiyannis: That’s such a tough question. I guess we would have to look at that really carefully. The issue with that is that it seems risky. I know people have been participating a lot in the public comments part of the city council meetings, and there was a huge meeting where everybody seemed to be reading from the same script where they were saying they want the budget cut by 50%. I think that seems extremely risky. Nobody really wants to take a risk with public safety, and if you cut the budget by 50%, there’s no guarantee that we all won’t be negatively impacted.
So, I know a lot of people were very vigorously advocating for that. I wouldn’t want to cut the budget like that. I think that is too much of a risk. I would want to just first examine what are we spending our money on? I’ve been hearing a lot; I have been trying to soak a lot of news in, and there are all these statistics being discussed where they say only a small number of calls that the police actually respond to have to do with crime, and there are a lot more calls that have to do almost with social services. Where I’m not even sure what the rest of the calls are.
So I would want to look at what is our money actually being spent on? Where can we find some efficiencies, and how can we work together with the police. This goes for every single part of the city budget, not just the police. How can we save the taxpayers’ money, and how can we make sure the money that is being spent is used in the best possible way? So, I am in favor of trying to economize, trying to find ways that we can reallocate some of the funds in ways that don’t compromise public safety. But I don’t have a perfect answer to the question. It’s something I’m going to have to learn a lot more about.
JCT: Got it.
Hadjiyannis: If it were that easy, I think we would have already done something.
JCT: Are there any areas of the city budget that you think need to be either trimmed or increased apart from public safety?
Hadjiyannis: I think the city made some big cuts to recreation recently. I don’t know if that was really—I think it’s very difficult to figure out what you need to cut. But I wouldn’t have been in favor of that.
JCT: In terms of cutting recreation.
Hadjiyannis: Yeah, yeah. And I think they’ve made a lot of cuts already, and I think that was probably pretty tough to do. I know they laid off all the part-time and seasonal workers. So, I don’t know, they said the budgets are like—I’ve heard different numbers, but supposedly they’re short like $40 million to $60 million, so I don’t know if it would be easy to cut anything else right now. But in the future when things become hopefully normalized we can look at that more.
Hadjiyannis: Also, I was surprised like 20% of our taxes go to serving municipal debt. So, I would probably want to [look at that].
JCT: Got it.
Hadjiyannis: Yeah, I mean it’s like I wouldn’t want 20% of my money going to pay…
JCT: Paying interest, right, right, sure. Let me ask you this: You have worked on the reservoir, you were the what? The president of the…
Hadjiyannis: Yeah, I was the president the past two years and I’m going to be stepping down next week, actually, so that—because I’m running—and I think you shouldn’t really be running a nonprofit while you’re a candidate for office.
JCT: Is there anything on that issue that you want to work on as a councilperson, or is there any intesection between your reservoir work and…
Hadjiyannis: Definitely. The reservoir is one of the things that mobilized me to become active in local politics. I felt like I was begging, back when we started. I felt like I was begging the council to do things that shouldn’t have been difficult decisions. It should have been a no brainer that we would want to preserve this site. So, having to spend so much time and energy to create this grassroots movement to get people to commit to saving the site. I’m grateful that they were persuaded to do it, but I felt like it shouldn’t have been so difficult.
Hadjiyannis: And the city wants to enter a new phase where they are investing in the site, which is something I really have been pushing for for like the last 10 years—to put the site in a position that they could get grants, and they could invest in the site. But, I guess it might have been right after labor day, they approved a plan without engaging our group to discuss the plan and with zero public engagement. And I think that is a chronic problem throughout the city, where a few people in a department come up with a plan and try to quickly push it through without really getting any feedback from anybody.
Hadjiyannis: So, now that the nonprofit—I’m still going to be on the board, but I’m just not going to be an officer of the nonprofit. We’re trying to re-engage the city to get a better plan in place because the plan that was approved last week, I guess right after Labor Day, is going to be extremely destructive to the site, and what was interesting was that they awarded a contract for $2.2 million, but none of the environmental stuff that they’re required to do by the Green Acres program and Trenton, they’re kind of nowhere with that. They’re just figuring that out, so they awarded the contract, but they don’t really have the capacity to go forward with it because the site investigation’s complete, there’s no plan of environmental remediation, and I was trying to get the city to hold off on awarding the contract, but they were just determined to push it through for reasons I really could barely understand.
JCT: Switching gears now, I’d also love to know how you see yourself in relation to the mayor—as an independent councilperson who consults with the mayor from time to time but has no political obligations to him or some…
Hadjiyannis: I think it’s just like being a lawyer. I’m going to be obligated to do what is in the best interest of my constituents. So, if I am privileged enough to be elected, I am committed to working with the administration and working with the rest of the council on everything I can work with them on. Then I think there’s certain noncontroversial things that I would want them to work with me on. Like, everyone loves the reservoir, everyone wants it to be a nice place. There are other things like trash—everybody has mentioned to me that we just have a problem with trash. And we don’t really have clean streets in the Heights. That’s a noncontroversial thing. I want to work on a lot of the quality of life things.
But then if I think they’re making poor decisions, I won’t be shy about standing up for things that are important, trying to keep them from making poor decisions.
JCT: Let me ask you this, how are you funding your campaign?
Hadjiyannis: With contributions.
JCT: Are you getting any money from any political organizations, or are you backed by the county democratic organization? Are there any ties to any larger organizations, or is this purely a grassroots effort?
Hadjiyannis: A lot of my donors have been, or contributors I guess I should say, they’ve been people who know me.
Hadjiyannis: They know me; they feel confident that I’m going to do a good job.
JCT: I’m just wondering if you’re tied to any larger organizations than individual donors you want to disclose in the name of campaign finance disclosure. I assume that some candidates will be receiving some support from deep pockets. Are you a Bernie Sanders type, getting small donations?
Hadjiyannis: That’s funny. I guess I’m more like a Pete Buttigieg or whatever his name is. He said if someone with deep pockets wants to give him a contribution, he is not going to turn his nose up at it.
Hadjiyannis: But, yeah, if there’s strings attached, I’m not really in favor of that. I’m not even—most of my things have been from individuals. I did get money from one PAC but, I’m not even sure, it’s sort of a small PAC that a friend runs, so I don’t think it’s any kind of big money.
JCT: Right, but you will have to disclose this…
JCT: It will come out. I’m just curious, I’m really curious about institutional support that you might be receiving.
Hadjiyannis: No, No. Not so far.
JCT: Not so far, got it. All right well that is a lot.
JCT: That’s very elucidating.