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Council to add 7 new members to Buildings-Standards Commission

Friday, October 4, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members Thursday took the first steps toward a larger  Building and Standards Commission – one that would, theoretically, be able to better handle a hefty volume of building code violations.


Council members unanimously offered tentative approval of the addition of seven members to the Commission. The move would bring the total number of commissioners to 14, effectively doubling the body and the amount of work it could do. The ordinance also sets up a formalized expedited permit process for landlords looking to address conditions considered substandard and dangerous.


“This ordinance will do two things: It will help landlords who want to do the right thing fix their problems faster, and help landlords who don’t want to do the right thing see the error of their ways,” Council Member Bill Spelman told In Fact Daily via email.


“The streamlined permitting process is aimed at helping landlords fix wobbly stairways and balconies, leaking roofs and broken systems, and other substandard conditions before someone gets hurt or sick. If someone is facing a Notice of Violation, they shouldn’t have to wait months and months to get permits to make necessary repairs. That just extends the length of time their tenants are living in substandard or dangerous conditions. We need to take that excuse out of the landlords’ hands and improve tenant living conditions just as quickly as possible. And we need a standardized process, not an ad hoc process, to make sure this happens on all Notices of Violation.”


In the process of discussion, Council Member Kathie Tovo attached two amendments – ruled friendly by item sponsors Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Spelman – one that removes a portion of the ordinance that suggested code cases more than 90 days overdue take priority, and one that requires commission input over the idea before adoption by Council.


Even with the adjustments, Spelman still saw approval as a win. “Taken together, these two changes put some much-needed teeth in our enforcement efforts. They’ll help us bring rental units up to code and help keep hundreds of thousands of Austin renters free from sickness and injury. I’m very happy a unanimous council agreed,” he wrote, referring to carrot and stick he detailed earlier.


During discussion Thursday, Code Compliance Director Carl Smart told Council members that there are currently 93 cases that are 90 days or more past their respective notices of violation. Spelman told In Fact Daily that the ordinance would give city officials more tools to deal with the backlog.


“We need to increase the size of the Building Standards Commission because we’re asking Codes to drop an unprecedented number of cases in their lap,” he said. “We have 93 cases in the queue, and we want them resolved quickly and fairly. We could schedule twice as many cases for each meeting, but that would only mean that BSC is only able to spend half as much time on each case. That’s not fair to the landlord or the tenants. Doubling the size of the commission and doubling the number of meetings will double our throughput and ensure a fair process.”


The original proposal from Cole and Spelman called for a larger commission. Under that plan, a 15-member Buildings and Standards body would rotate through three individual panels. Each of those panels would meet once every six weeks, and have final decision-making power over cases.


The revision came on a suggestion from Council Member Chris Riley. Riley moved to change the body to a 14-member group after Council Member Laura Morrison suggested it be expanded to a 21-member body – or, three groups of seven. Morrison worried that three five-member panels would leave a hole in representation for her and her colleagues.


The item comes as Council members continue to wrestle with the best way to address property compliance issues. Both Spelman and Tovo brought forward rental registration items over the past few months. Spelman offered a more narrow approach, with a targeted list designed for the worst offenders. Tovo looked more broadly, with sights set on registration for every landlord in three problem areas.


Spelman’s registry won approval last week. Tovo delayed hers and brought it back as three separate resolutions (one for each neighborhood in question) this week. Each of those resolutions was delayed until Nov. 7.

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