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City proposes ways to reduce permitting costs for homeowners

Tuesday, April 10, 2018 by Jack Craver

In November of last year, City Council approved a resolution aimed at making it easier and cheaper for homeowners to repair or renovate their houses.

The resolution asked the Development Services Department to consider setting up a separate, simpler permitting process for homeowners, including a dedicated team of city staff that could help property owners jump through the hoops necessary to build a second unit on their property or make necessary renovations.

Council Member Delia Garza, the resolution’s lead author, described the effort as a way to reduce costs for middle-income homeowners who are at risk of getting priced out of the city.

In particular, Garza highlighted the difficulty of getting permits to build an accessory dwelling unit, which some homeowners may install and rent out as a way to generate income and defray the cost of their ever-rising property taxes.

“I think they’re not being built because we have these fees and these institutional barriers that are preventing families in my district from building these,” she said about ADUs in September.

Last week, city staff reported back to Council with a lengthy memo outlining a number of existing actions that Development Services has taken to make permitting easier on homeowners as well as a number of potential new policies that it could implement.

The memo points out that many permits no longer require an in-person meeting and can instead be applied for and obtained online. The department also offers a free 20-minute consultation with residents “who have general questions about their project.”

In recent years the city has expanded the number of home repairs that don’t require a permit. Among other things, homeowners don’t need permission to put in place driveways, make small fixes to their foundations and build decks that are smaller than 200 square feet. The list of repairs that don’t require a permit is significantly longer in Austin than San Antonio, the memo says.

The department proposes four policies that could further reduce the time and cost burden on small residential projects.

First, the department proposes including a provision in CodeNEXT that will exempt small “missing middle” multifamily developments (between three and six units) from submitting a full site plan as long as they are not located in the Barton Springs Zone and do not exceed 45 percent impervious cover.

The department also proposes creating “how-to” guides for the most common home projects that “lay the foundation for the process, what to expect, how to apply for permits, and how to pass inspections.” Those guides will be available online and in print as well as in multiple languages, the memo says. The department says it will wait until after implementation of CodeNEXT (hardly an assured outcome) so that the guides are based on the most up-to-date rules.

The third proposal is to establish a homeowners “ombudsperson” program, modeled after a similar program in Washington, D.C., to provide “continuous assistance” to people navigating the development review and permitting process. In addition to lending a helping hand to homeowners, the program will serve as a permanent advocate for homeowners in the department, relaying concerns about the difficulties that city policies are causing people.

Finally, the memo calls for a payment assistance program that would “assist homeowners with paying permit fees for expanding/remodeling a homestead.” The details of the proposed program remain vague, notably who would be eligible and where the money would come from. The department “will seek stakeholder input to develop criteria for the program,” the memo explains.

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Sondra M. Wieseler.

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