ITHACA, N.Y.—Kayla Matos, the Deputy Director at the Southside Community Center, has a bid out for Ithaca Common Council.

She characterizes her effort to earn a seat in the city’s council chambers as an extension of her years long work at Southside. It’s there that she says, “I really grew into the passion of helping the community.” 

Matos’ candidacy for Ithaca’s First Ward went public when the Working Families Party announced their endorsement of her, along with a slate of other candidates, in February. A Democrat, Matos is seeking the four-year term in the First Ward, setting up a race against incumbent Alderperson Cynthia Brock in the June primaries.

Matos spent a couple years at Ithaca College, exploring accounting and legal studies. While she was taking college courses, Matos says she was working at the community center when she made the decision to put a pause on college and focus on her career at Southside. 

That was five years ago. Now the center’s second in command, Matos is trying to leverage her service to the community in her campaign, and send the message that she’s experienced a lot of the same problems many in the First Ward may have as well.

After redistricting, the First Ward encompasses Ithaca’s Southside and Northside neighborhoods, as Spencer Road and the city’s West Hill. It is the largest ward by area in the city, and includes many working class and middle class neighborhoods, as well as many of the city’s affordable housing projects.

“A lot of Ward One residents, we’re in the downtown area, and […] we’re the Ithacans,” Matos said. She added, “I’ve experienced the same disparities that they’ve experienced.”

Matos said she grew up as a renter in the city with a single mother, which has led her to want to increase tenants protections in the city and to increase housing affordability. A situation where there’s a flood in a basement and the carpets haven’t been changed for a month? “I understand that because I’ve had to face and deal with things like that,” said Matos. 

Good Cause Eviction laws have become a hotly contested tenant protection in the state legislature and locally. The law would regulate the rent increases that landlords are permitted to make, and remove landlords’ ability to refuse a lease renewal to a tenant unless there has been a lease violation, like a failure to pay rent. 

Local advocates have pushed for the City of Ithaca to test New York state’s authority to regulate rent and evictions by preemptively passing a version of the law, like the city of Kingston. However, in Kingston and other cities in the state, judges have blocked Good Cause laws.

Matos said that “I would love to push for Good Cause to be passed, even though we can’t do it at the local level. But at the state level, I’m trying to participate in any which way that I can get that bill passed.”

Among her primary goals if she were elected to office, Matos says, would be to push for additional funding for organizations that are already working to address issues in the community, like homelessness or providing mental health services. She acknowledged that the balancing act in this approach is to avoid “breaking the bank” for the cash-strapped city. But it’s providing funding to community organizations that seems to be closest to the heart of her campaign, or at least what would become the start of it.

Matos says the seed that would grow into her decision to run was planted during the City of Ithaca’s last budget season. She appeared before Common Council to make the case for the city to include a total of $550,000 in funding for the Southside Community Center in its 2023 budget — a request that is more than triple what Southside had requested from the city in recent years. 

The request included $150,000 to support administrative and the programs at the center, but making up the bulk of that figure was a one-time ask of $400,000 to renovate Southside’s community kitchen, which turns out hundred of meals a day for afterschool and preteen programming, the center’s food pantry, and monthly community meals. 

Southside Community Center ultimately received $200,000 in one time funding to improve its modest but bustling kitchen. The center is not a city department, but its own non-profit. While many elected officials readily applauded the services that the Southside delivers to the residents of Ithaca, the limited oversight that the city’s administration has over the center has been a cause for caution when councilors consider monetary contributions to Southside. 

Watching the council deliberate over funding Southside, Matos says, “was my moment where I realized Common Council does have a lot of power on the policies that are happening here in Ithaca.”

“My community gave to me at one point in my life,” said Matos. Being on Common Council would be, for Matos, another opportunity to return those kindnesses. 

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn