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Tuesday, August 2, 2016 by Cate Malek

Coalition fights to add worker protections to expedited building permit process

The people who are building Austin can no longer afford to live in it, labor advocates say.

Although they’re working on the big construction projects that are pushing Austin’s growth, construction workers in Austin have few protections, and many are living on or near poverty wages, pushing them to move outside of Austin to areas where they can find cheaper housing.

In an attempt to fight this trend, a coalition of organizations, along with at least four City Council members, is asking to include requirements for worker protections and affordable housing in a proposal that would allow developers to pay a fee in order to get through the building permit process faster.

“Instead of just letting people pay cash to get to the front of the line, I would prefer that they provide some benefit to the community as part of the process,” Council Member Greg Casar told the Austin Monitor.

The Expedited Permitting Program is meant to reduce the length of plan review for both small businesses and large commercial and residential projects. Some benefits to the program would be predictability and consolidation of multiple reviews into a single session. But the main appeal for the business community would be the money saved by the reduced amount of time spent waiting for a permit.

The proposal could cut the amount of time that developers have to wait for a new permit from several months to a few days, said Bo Delp, the Better Builder director for the Workers Defense Project. The fee that the developers would have to pay for this expedited service would be countered by the significant money they would save with the new process.

“Developers have been asking for an expedited permit review process for years,” Delp said.

Council will vote in August whether to include the expedited review team in the budget for the coming year. The core team would consist of about five people whose salaries would be paid for by the increased developer fees. Estimated rates for the expedited service would be between $160 to $200 an hour, with additional fees for a second review or overtime.

A similar expedited review team was created in Dallas, and the program has been popular. Although Austin is interested in following Dallas’ example, labor advocates and Council members are pushing to invest the extra money paid by the developers back into the community.

“In Austin, we do things differently,” Casar said. “I understand that in Dallas, you can currently just pay to get to the front of the line, but in Austin I don’t think our community members would support that. But I think people would be open to this sort of a system if they know we’re addressing needs our community has.”

The worker protection proposal would require commercial developers qualifying for an expedited permit to also agree to adhere to the standards of the Better Builder Program created by the Workers Defense Project. The program requires developers to provide workers with a living wage, OSHA-10 safety training, workers compensation insurance and independent on-site monitoring. It also asks developers to hire locally instead of recruiting workers from outside the area. Residential developers would be required to invest in the city’s affordable housing program.

The ultimate goal for the proposal is to ensure that construction workers receive higher salaries and have more housing options, making it possible for them to stay in Austin instead of being forced to move to surrounding suburbs. It would also help protect them from getting injured or killed on the job and losing their source of income.

“Construction workers are an underserved community that has been disproportionately affected by a lack of regulation,” Delp told the Monitor. “The people who are building our city are literally dying.”

Photo by Dan Keshet. The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Planning and Development Review: The Planning and Development Review Department is responsible for Austin's city planning, preservation, and design. The department also provides development review and inspection services for the city.

Workers Defense Project: A nonprofit advocacy group that provides resources to ensure low-income workers fair employment.

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