Kayla Matos (D-First Ward), deputy director for Southside Community Center, will face twelve-year incumbent Alderperson Cynthia Brock (D-First Ward) — who is now running on the Ithacans for Progress line — in the race for the First Ward’s four-year seat, just four months after Matos overcame Brock in the June 27 Democratic primaries.
In an interview with The Sun, Matos said that her experience requesting city funding for the center was the reason she decided to run.
“The city typically gives us $200,000 [per year], so last year I decided to go to the city and ask for an increase to our budget,” Matos said. “When doing so, the treatment that I received and the way that I was hearing councilmembers talk about the community center made me uncomfortable.”
Southside Community Center, which has been in operation since 1927, empowers and supplies resources for the Black community in Ithaca. According to their website, the center offers programs including affordable after school childcare, a food pantry, a pet clinic — which partners with Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine — and educational resources for children and adults. Matos says that organizations like Southside fill a vital role in addressing the wide range of issues Ithacans face, including food insecurity.
“Just a few weeks ago, somebody I went to high school with got locked up. I see him around the neighborhood a lot, so when he was released, I asked him what happened,” Matos said. “He said that he had the cops called on him because he was stealing food from the gas station, so he did a little bit of time. I looked at him, and my response was, ‘Next time you’re hungry, just come to the Southside Community Center. I will get you food.’”
Matos said she feels the Common Council does not do enough to support the work of community organizations.
“I’m really advocating for stronger city support with non-profits or community organizations that are doing the everyday groundwork to help our community be a better place, and that would include organizations like OAR, REACH and No Más Lágrimas,” Matos said.
Matos said that the homeless encampments on the West End are among the most pressing issues facing the First Ward. She praised the Common Council’s new plan to introduce amenities such as bathrooms and showers to the encampments, but she also said she thinks more should be done to make living conditions more humane for those experiencing homelessness and to address public safety concerns.
“One of the first ways that we start reducing crime is providing the resources that those in the encampments need [through policy], but I also think that we need case workers and organizations that are working with them directly, like REACH, to be in there and be able to provide resources,” Matos said.
Matos also noted the recently approved memorandum of understanding between the University and the City of Ithaca. Brock was the only member of the Common Council to vote against the new 15-year MOU, which sets Cornell’s contribution to the city budget at $4 million and will annually adjust the contribution for inflation.
“The deal is much improved from where we started, so I’m grateful for that and the work of the community and my colleagues to help us get what we have right now,” Brock said in an Oct. 11 interview with The Sun. “But I do think that this is a deal accepted under duress and we didn’t have any choice but to accept it.”
Like Brock, Matos remains critical of Cornell’s financial contributions to the City of Ithaca, but she is optimistic about the recent agreement and Cornell’s potential to support the city through other means.
“I’m really glad that we were able to get an increase [in Cornell’s contribution to the City of Ithaca],” Matos said. “I would have loved to see a shorter-term contract, but we have to start somewhere and create room for discussion.”
Matos said Cornell students and professors have worked with Southside Community Center to develop infrastructure and policies that respond to the increasing danger of flooding. She sees taking advantage of the resources and specialized knowledge that Cornell has to offer as an avenue for solving difficult problems that the community faces.
“I think this is another creative way that we start roping Cornell into these conversations on improving our community because obviously they’re not going to want to pay out of pocket,” Matos said. “They made that very clear through the MOU negotiations.”
Matos is also a proponent of increasing affordable and multifamily housing in Ithaca. She attributes many of the problems Ithaca families and full-time residents face in seeking affordable housing to the market’s catering to the city’s large student population.
“A lot of our housing market is geared towards our college students,” Matos said. “A lot of houses are advertised room-by-room instead of as a complete house, which is affecting our families who are renters.”
Matos said if elected, she will attempt to re-examine the city’s zoning policies to accommodate more affordable housing, particularly for working families who are facing increasingly burdensome rent costs, gentrification and displacement.
As a lifelong Ithaca resident, the issues that define Matos’ platform are not just political, but also personal. Having experienced the impacts of Ithaca’s affordability challenges firsthand, Matos hopes to contribute a perspective to the Common Council that aligns with the interests of her working-class constituents should she be elected.
“I’m able to bring my lived experiences to the table when discussing policies and how policies will affect people because I am one of the people those policies affect, being from a working-class family,” Matos said.
Matos has been endorsed by the New York Working Families Party, the Ithaca Tenants Union, the Ithaca Sunrise Movement and the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America.
Early voting for the Common Council election runs from Oct. 28 to Nov. 5. The election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 7.
Kate Sanders is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].