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Biz groups oppose more rules for permitting

Thursday, September 1, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Four Austin business groups are opposing a plan to require extra steps in the city’s permit review process. The steps would lead to more protection for construction workers, but they would also involve extra time and paperwork as well as additional fees on projects going through the proposed expedited review process at the Development Services Department.

Those opposed to the resolution include the Austin Independent Business Alliance, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin.

In response to complaints about the length of time that it takes to get through the city’s permitting process as well as to a recommendation in the 2015 Zucker Report, the Development Services Department has proposed creating an expedited review process, with funding for the program in the upcoming budget.

In June, City Council approved a resolution directing the city manager to include worker protection standards for commercial projects going through the expedited process. It also directed staff to look at requiring SMART Housing program participation for residential projects. (“SMART” stands for “safe, mixed-income, accessible, reasonably priced, transit-oriented.”) However, that idea is not on today’s Council agenda.

What is included in the resolution is a directive that worker protection standards must include the following: a living wage, as defined by the city of Austin; various kinds of Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety training; workers’ compensation; “a local hiring goal for project owners to ensure commercially reasonable efforts are made to recruit 30% of the total workforce hours performed from local Department of Labor-registered apprenticeship programs or bilingual craft training programs that offer instruction at zero or nominal cost to the worker; independent, third-party on-site monitoring selected through a competitive process to ensure these standards are upheld.”

Rebecca Melancon, executive director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, told Council in a letter that her organization “totally supports the Workers Defense Project in their efforts to bring safe working conditions, fair pay, security and justice to the construction workers in our community.”

“Every member I have spoken to embraces the concept of safe and fair working conditions for all,” she said. “But this resolution is not the answer. It is a punitive plan that makes it even harder for our beloved local businesses to remain in operation.”

She said her organization is willing to work “hand in hand with our friends at WDP to find the path to help the construction workers in Austin. But this resolution on this policy is not that path.”

Phyllis Snodgrass, chief executive officer of Austin’s Habitat for Humanity, told the Austin Monitor that her group is interested only in residential permitting but that she is concerned about any additional hoops the organization might have to go through to get such permits. “Additional hoops add more time and extra cost, and when you’re trying to build an affordable home at no profit, you really don’t have any margin for that,” she said.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, the lead sponsor on the resolution, declined to comment. Council Member Greg Casar, a leader at the Workers Defense Project before being elected to Council, told the Monitor that small businesses could be exempted from the workplace standards. The resolution refers to exceptions for small-scale projects but does not define small scale.

Ward Tisdale, president of the Real Estate Council of Austin, shared with the Monitor a letter he had written to the mayor and Council urging them to move forward with the expedited program but not to use it as “a vehicle to impose additional and unrelated requirements into the permitting process. Such requirements will impose an undue and potentially costly burden on those using the program, and will discourage its use and therefore undermine the benefits of the program to the city,” he said.

Tisdale said the expedited permit program should make permits more affordable for everyone. “An expedited program is not paying to get to the front of the line, this program creates a second line that in many cases will be cheaper to use. An expedited permit program will benefit the city, relieving volume from the regular permitting process” and allowing faster delivery of projects.

Tisdale continued, “Austin has a housing affordability problem because supply is not keeping up with demand, thereby inflating rental and home prices. We need the construction of 150,000 housing units by 2025 to apply downward pressure on both. A slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic permit review process is partly to blame for the supply not meeting demand.”

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce released a statement that included the following: “While the City of Austin works to dramatically improve the permitting process, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce supports the creation of an expedited permit review process which does not mandate unrelated certifications like SMART Housing or Workers Defense Project Better Builder Program.”

Geoffrey Tahuahua, vice president of public policy for the Home Builders Association, told Council in a letter that “no additional requirements should be placed on expedited review, outside of the additional hourly fee on top of existing permit and development fees.”
He urged Council to follow the model of Dallas’ expedited program, which does not include any additional requirements other than fees.

Tahuahua, like others who have dealt with it, described the city’s current process of permitting as “an unpredictable and tedious process that our industry struggles with on a daily basis, and in some instances it can take 6-18 months to get certain items approved.”

Late Wednesday, the Monitor heard that the item on today’s agenda to consider directing the city manager to include those extra steps in the expedited process might be postponed until after Council passes the Fiscal Year 2016-2017 budget in mid-September. The Monitor also heard that the item would be set for 2 p.m.

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