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Construction in Austin

Despite progress, builders complain of long waits for permits

Tuesday, August 21, 2018 by Jack Craver

Among the many factors blamed for Austin’s affordability crisis are the city’s notoriously complicated development regulations.

The development review process is so cumbersome, critics say, that builders have to hire agents to get their permits approved, creating a cost that is invariably passed on to those purchasing or renting the housing that gets built. For people who are just trying to get permits for individual projects – e.g., a garage apartment in their backyard – the process is even more daunting if they can’t afford to hire an agent.

On Friday, the Development Services Department released its annual customer satisfaction survey. The results, suggested department Director Rodney Gonzales, showed that things were gradually improving.

The survey, which includes 71 questions (not all of which apply to all customers), was emailed to 3,500 people who sought permits from the city in 2017, and 753 responded.

On most measures, the DSD’s reviews from its customers improved between 2016 and 2017. On 40 of the 71 questions, there was at least a 4 percent increase in customers who said they were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the city process in question.

Unfortunately, on the measures that DSD acknowledges are the most important, customers are still largely unhappy, despite signs of improvement. Notably, very few customers are satisfied with the amount of time it takes to get things done.

A majority of those who had to get a residential building plan reviewed said that time was the most important issue for them, but only 29 percent said they were satisfied with how quickly the review process was completed. That’s still an improvement over the previous year, when only 23 percent reported satisfaction.

The results were similarly sobering for commercial building review plans: 61 percent said that time was the most important issue and only 32 percent said they were satisfied on that front, up from 21 percent the previous year.

In contrast, customers reported higher satisfaction on measures that they didn’t rank as important. More than half of customers who dealt with the residential and commercial building review divisions said they were satisfied with their own understanding of the process, but in both cases customers said that was the thing they cared least about.

Until 2015, permit reviews were handled by the Planning and Development Review Department, which was also in charge of the meatier land use issues: notably zoning changes and long-range planning. However, in response to a 2015 report by consultant Zucker Systems describing rampant inefficiencies in the department and low staff morale, former City Manager Marc Ott decided to shift permitting, reviews and inspections into the newly created DSD, while the newly created Planning and Zoning Department would handle higher-level land use policy.

The city’s goal is for DSD to eventually become an “enterprise fund” that is funded by the fees it charges customers, rather than the city’s General Fund. It has made significant progress toward that goal. In the past three years, its budget has grown from roughly $39 million to $55 million, but the amount it receives from the General Fund has dropped from $15.8 million in FY 2015 to a projected $4.4 million in FY 2018.

However, in order to reduce wait times, the department has said that it needs to add staff, paid for either by the General Fund or by increasing fees charged to customers for permits and reviews. Last year, Council balked at approving 51 new positions requested by the department. The budget recommended by the city manager this year again includes 50 new positions, to be funded by increases in fees.

“After bringing all fees to full cost of service, DSD is financially self-sufficient,” said Gonzales in a report providing updates on the progress the department has made on the action plan it crafted in response to the Zucker report. “Conversion to an Enterprise Fund will allow for a reserve fund balance to be created as a financial safeguard to an economic downturn. DSD will relocate to a new building that will centralize the customer service areas into a true ‘one-stop’ shop, a vision from the 1990’s that can be achieved through the new building.”

Photo by Lars Plougmann made available by a Creative Commons license. 

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