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Austin wants to make it easier to build garage apartments

Friday, November 10, 2017 by Syeda Hasan

City Council took a step yesterday to streamline the process of building and remodeling homes by approving the Family Homestead Initiative. The resolution calls for the city to identify all the regulations and costs associated with the process.

Council Member Delia Garza, who sponsored the measure, said she wants to create a separate permitting process for homeowners because they shouldn’t have to contend with the same regulations as large developers.

“My hope is that when we look at that whole process together, we see the difficulty that homeowners face,” she said, “and we decide to change some of those (regulations) and create a more streamlined process.”

Council is set to get a progress report on the new recommendations by February. Homeowners and builders have long complained about the city’s notoriously slow and convoluted permitting process. Garza stressed that her resolution is not meant to be a criticism of the city’s Development Services Department, which has been subject to heavy public scrutiny in recent years.

Before the vote, her measure gained broad support from city leaders who often differ on development issues. Council Member Alison Alter said it could offer new solutions in the ongoing debate between adding new housing and preserving older neighborhoods.

“The Family Homestead Initiative allows us to explore ways to give power back to the average homeowner, and to make it easier and less expensive to add housing that is in character with our existing neighborhoods,” Alter said, “and that allows our Austinites to age in place.”

The resolution notes that cost can be a major barrier for residents who want to expand their homes, whether or not they want to rent out the space.

Resident Monica Brickley joined Council members and other supporters at a press conference Thursday. She and her husband own a home in the Zilker neighborhood, and they built a second unit on the property for her mother to live in. Brickley said they weren’t prepared for the tens of thousands of dollars in fees that came with the expansion.

“The process has been expensive, cumbersome, lengthy,” she said. “There have been fees on top of fees that we couldn’t imagine, and if someone actually sat there and added it up and imagined their family paying for it, the numbers might actually make someone sick.”

Garza said she didn’t bring the resolution forward with CodeNEXT in mind. In April, Council is set to vote on the rewrite of Austin’s Land Development Code, but some groups are calling for a delay or even to put the new code to a public vote.

“Let’s just assume nothing happens,” Garza said. “Let’s assume we have the exact same land code. We need a process that’s streamlined for homeowners. So, we’re not trying to do this because of CodeNEXT. We’re doing this in spite of CodeNEXT, I guess you could say.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT.

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