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Austin moves forward with expedited building permits

Wednesday, November 2, 2016 by Syeda Hasan

Builders in Austin have long complained about the city’s notoriously slow permitting process. Now, the city is set to launch a new program that will offer a faster option – but it comes with some costs.

Building in Austin typically requires getting a permit from the city’s Development Services Department. But as recent reports have shown, the permitting process can be slow and convoluted. The city’s new expedited permit program offers a faster review process in exchange for a fee. Along with paying the additional charge, developers who take the faster route will have to ensure certain protections for construction workers, such as giving safety training, providing workers compensation and paying a living wage – that’s $13.03 per hour in Austin.

Bo Delp is with the Workers Defense Project, a group that advocated for the worker protections. He calls the requirement a “huge win for working families.”

“It really sends a clear message that the city of Austin will incentivize and reward businesses that are willing to invest in working families in this city and ensure that they have enough money in their pocket at the end of the day to go home safely to their family to live in the city that they build,” Delp said.

Delp sees the new program as a win for both workers and developers, and he thinks Austin’s approach could be a model for other cities to follow in balancing the two interests. But not everyone agrees. Drew Scheberle is with the Austin Chamber of Commerce. He takes issue with a clause in the City Council resolution that requires expedited projects to recruit 30 percent of their workforce hours from Department of Labor-registered apprenticeships.

“Those are programs that are union programs,” Scheberle said. “There’s nothing that’s demonstrated that you’re better prepared or you’re more effective if you’ve gone through one of those.”

Scheberle thinks that requirement would give unfair preference to workers who go through training programs affiliated with labor unions.

“You have union apprenticeship that gets significant priority in hiring, and it disadvantages graduates from Austin Community College, area school districts, Goodwill and other kinds of local training programs,” he said.

Scheberle said the business community has no problem with offering protections for employees, but that stipulations like these don’t belong in the conversation.

The expedited permitting process is set to launch in March.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT News.

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