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Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2023-02-22



Elections 2023: Bennett Lawson prepares to take the reins in the 44th Ward
by Matt Simonette

This article shared 1650 times since Fri Feb 24, 2023
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This is part of a series of interviews Windy City Times is running on LGBTQ+ candidates in the 2023 municipal elections taking place Feb. 28.

Bennett Lawson, chief of staff to 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney, has worked alongside the alderman for close to two decades. Tunney announced last year that he would not be seeking another term on the City Council, and Lawson, who is gay, announced a day later that he would be running to fill his boss' post.

An initial opponent, Nathan Bean, was removed from the ballot, so Lawson has been unopposed in his bid this election cycle. He spoke to Windy City Times about, amid other topics, the his past work in the 44th Ward and the issues he'd like to address as a member of the Council.

Windy City Times: What compelled you to run to succeed Tunney?

Bennett Lawson: I'm a lifelong public servant. I have worked for governments in constituent-facing roles ever since college. For me, this was a natural next-step.

I've been in Ald. Tunney's office for 18 years, 15 of them as the chief of staff. I also feel that no one knows the issues or the ward as well as I do—and would be able to hit the ground running and get things done. I'm counting on both my abilities and connections with the community to keep things stable and have common-sense leadership in the ward. I think people appreciate that in 44.

WCT: What are one or two items from your resume that don't have anything to do with your chief of staff role, that lend themselves to the job?

BL: I've been involved with other elected official's campaigns. Prior to being with Ald. Tunney, I was with state Sen. Carol Ronen as her district office director, and prior to that I was a [U.S. Rep. Jan] Schakowsky campaign person. I've lived in the neighborhood since 2008, and my husband and I bought here a year-and-a-half ago. We were married three weeks before the pandemic started.

I've also been involved with a lot of the institutions here. I have a great relationship with a lot of the small businesses here, on the City side and as a customer. I've been active with both Center on Halsted, Howard Brown [Health Center], Thresholds and other nonprofits. I was also on the board of TPAN a few years back. For many years, I did the Ride for AIDS Chicago, which gave me a lot of great connections in the LGBT community.

WCT: One specific Lakeview issue you brought up there is the retail base—it had been hard-hit even before the pandemic came. What would you want to do as alderman to help retailers there and bring in new retailers, while still guarding against overdevelopment in the 44th Ward?

BL: There's three pieces to that. I don't think we're doing enough to keep them in business post-pandemic—if we even are post-pandemic. We were focused on that early on, but now the money is drying up a bit. The City is pulling back on some of the COVID [relief] options for businesses, specifically with hospitality.

I think we should have done more for retailers, like what we did for hospitality. We were very strict about sidewalk sales for some reason, in a way that didn't make any sense. … But neighborhood retail has changed. We have to support the ones that we have, and keep the spaces that we have.

Part of the problem is taxes, as taxes have gone up here. We got hit with a reassessment and a rate increase. The commercial properties, especially the one-stories, pay a much higher rate than the mixed-use buildings. You also have landlords holding out for that national tenant, which doesn't help anybody if the corner's vacant. We have to look at the vacancy credits that we we give to landlords, and make sure that they're not being abused, and we need to look at relief for long-term businesses.

On the development side, we need to be [intentional] about the new spaces that we are creating. We've done a study that looks at streets like Sheffield, and part of Belmont, where the zoning code says you have to put a commercial space on the first floor, but we know, practically speaking, that it's going to be vacant. … In some of the areas that are more mixed anyway, we're saying, "Just go all residential."

WCT: That leads into the housing piece of this. Affordability was a talking point for Nathan Bean, who mentioned his worry about being priced out of the neighborhood. What would you do for people who who are longtime residents getting priced out, while mitigating for property-owners concerned about their home values, among many interests?

BL: I know a lot of people are just now getting above the value that they had on a condo, on a lot of buildings, that they had in '08. The rents have gone up consistently. There's a number of factors there. Taxes have gone up, and that's always passed onto the renter.

When we talk about affordability, a lot of our "natural-occurring" affordable housing is in an older building. We have to make sure that it's stable, the building is in good shape, and there's assistance where we're able to do that on the city side.

We have a supply issue. We have a huge housing demand that we're not able to meet, in specific parts of the city, Lake View being one of them. I will always be in favor of building new. One of the benefits that we have when we build new is that we have a 20% affordable component for any large project, 10 units or more. I would require that those units be onsite—[with developers] not buying into the Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund. Not only are new developments increasing market supply, it takes pressure off existing rental units. It will help ease that demand and add to that affordability.

We have had to be very creative to come up with affordable housing in our ward. Town Hall Apartments is a classic example. We had the police station, we had the Center [on Halsted], we had city-owned land that was big enough to do something with. We're doing something similar at the Lakeview Lutheran site, 835 West Addison, where the church is giving their land to a non-profit developer to do 38 units of 100% accessible, 100% affordable housing. That's a model we know—with two blocks from the train, next-door to a great neighborhood—that we know we need to follow.

We have more teeth with new buildings and more structure with affordable housing than we do with existing housing, where it's tough to have the same kinds of requirements. I should say we also have the Accessory Dwelling Units ordinance, where we're allowing people to build up their attic or basement, or a coachhouse for the first time since the '50s, which is adding some gentle density. … That is a pilot in 44, west of Halsted only. I think it should be citywide.

WCT: How will you be addressing crime in the ward, to ensure that residents and visitors are safe there?

BL: We're a high profile area—it's the Cubs, it's the LGBT [neighborhood], it's dense, it's upper-income. It's something we're used to, have put a spotlight on, and is something we always have to work on. … There's always things to do—educating new residents, new businesses—and new officers and commanders. Staying engaged with the police on a regular basis is important.

We've lost some community during the pandemic, and we have to be intentional in rebuilding that, and that includes with the police. Our arrest rates are very, very low right now. I think the arrest rate for carjacking is 10%, maybe less. Officers are not making arrests. They're not feeling supported and they're not having days off. Their mental-health needs are not being met.

There's a multi-pronged approach we have to take. We have to give the days off. We have to hire. More police won't solve crime outright, but it will help with the numbers to get them more manageable. There's talk of a "buyback" program, wherein when an officer retires we can hire them back here. Likely not on patrol but in an area where they can be helpful.

We also need better training for the officers, so they can use the technology that is changing public safety. Many years ago, there was talk of cameras on Halsted, and the topic of privacy came up. That topic is totally different now than it was back then. Let's at least use these cameras so they can help solve crime, whether that's license plate readers to sound monitors on Lake Shore Drive.

Our community needs to rebuild that trust with the police department. Our community does not feel over-policed, but I feel that others do. Part of that is training, and part of that is our new police councils.

One of the frustrating things for me is that the police are not as willing to give statements or speak to the media as the aldermen might be. We're often called on, and it's often tough for us to release information without speaking to [the police] first. So a lot of the statements you get from us are not very meaty. We need better communication with the police and from the police, and a lot of that comes from downtown. The 19th District has a great Twitter account, which is active, but could it be used more effectively?

We also need to address the root causes of crime: lack of jobs, educational opportunities and housing. Uplift those communities that are struggling and have been disinvested from. One of the stats that upsets me is that a full half of everyone arrested for carjacking is a juvenile. That's the 13- or 14-year-old kid who was in a marginalized situation and maybe had all their structure taken out during COVID. How do we get them back into the fold and prevent other kids that from choosing crime over a productive future? We have to make those investments. … That's what will stabilize this city as a whole.

WCT: How welcoming do you see Lake View being to LGBTQ+ folks from other parts of the city, especially those folks belonging to other marginalized communities? What work do you plan to do on that?

BL: I'll recognize my privilege as a white guy in this space. I will say that is something that was definitely not on my radar when I was younger. I always felt like Halsted was a welcoming place and you could find diversity there that you did not find in other neighborhoods.

But I will say that, after the George Floyd protests and [concurrent] situations on Halsted—and even before that, there were issues with dress codes and things like that—I've seen a marked shift. Business owners have been more intentional with a diversity in hiring. It's welcoming to a more diverse crowd because those owners and managers have been intentional in their decisions.

The Center has always been very diverse and Howard Brown has always been very diverse. But before, there were a lot of white faces behind the bars; in fact, a lot of male white faces behind the bars and at the doors too. I see more women working, and more trans people and more people of color at those establishments, and that's very warming. There's always work to do to make sure that everyone feels comfortable everywhere in our city. It's a tall order, but it's something I'll be a part of.

WCT: What other issues do you see as pertinent for LGBTQ+ residents of the ward?

BL: I don't think most of the issues that are LGBT-focused are necessarily ward-focused. There's a still a concern about youth homelessness that is still disproportionately LGBT, and homelessness in general—the city is not doing a great job of addressing that. The violence against trans people of color is something that, while it's not happening here, is something that is impacting our community.

Speaking of institutions, Howard Brown has got a real problem because of how funding models have changed—that impacts our community as well. We worry about that with places like the Center. That has a more stable funding stream, but what if we get [federal legislation] that goes after the LGBTQ community?

One of the more depressing things I've seen is, in some of the bars, they're now wanding people. That's a real reminder that we need to protect some of our safe spaces. They're not safe just because we're there. There's an extra layer that we have to give. It's heartbreaking what's happening in other cities, but we can't let that happen here. The business community here has been very intentional about that as well.

WCT: What advice will you have for your chief of staff?

BL: I pity that person, because I'll probably know what they should be doing.

So, get ready. It's a job that I know is dynamic, busy, and every day is different. You think you will have a quiet day and then something implodes, sometimes literally. It's not a nine-to-five. It's a lot of nights and weekends. It's a job you take home with you, and you have to be ready for anything.

See .

This article shared 1650 times since Fri Feb 24, 2023
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