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City clarifies new construction rules

Tuesday, March 31, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

As promised, the city has clarified its new rules for the construction industry under orders asking Austinites to stay home unless necessary.

Since Mayor Steve Adler issued shelter-in-place guidelines March 25, the question of which construction is considered essential has been a topic of debate and some confusion. As of Monday, the city has implemented a new administrative process to approve projects as “essential activities, critical infrastructure, essential business or affordable housing projects.” Projects that fall into any of these four categories will be allowed to continue. Those that are found to be nonessential will be asked to halt and could be subject to “enforcement actions” if they do not.

On Monday night, the Real Estate Council of Austin was in the process of reviewing the new guidelines but had not yet changed its position on the city’s current construction regulations, which it called “excessive” in a statement to the press on March 27.

“Public health and safety is the top priority for all of us, but the mayor’s implementation of a construction ban shuts down essential work, makes unrelated exceptions for narrow categories, and goes too far,” said RECA CEO Dianne Bangle in the statement. “Implementing this construction ban will devastate construction workers and small businesses, including large communities of color, skilled and unskilled trades, labor and their families.”

The Austin Infill Coalition, too, has asked the mayor and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt to reconsider the current restrictions on building. In a letter addressing the issue, the coalition noted that work on “tens of thousands” of ongoing construction projects has been paused, delaying new housing and posing health and safety hazards to those living in homes that are being remodeled or renovated. Instead of delaying the work, the coalition asked the city to enact a strict set of health and safety requirements.

“Other Texas cities and counties that have issued shelter-in-place orders have allowed residential construction to continue. That means many of our workers are likely to continue building homes elsewhere under less stringent protections than we’ve proposed,” wrote the coalition.

Under the March 25 “Stay Home, Work Safe” order, construction exceptions were established as:

  • Public works construction projects
  • Affordable housing projects
  • Construction of facilities for individuals experiencing homelessness
  • Construction of facilities that provide social services
  • Construction of facilities that are defined in the order as essential businesses, essential government functions, or critical infrastructure
  • Construction of facilities specifically required by the city in response to the current Covid-19 emergency

According to an open letter from Development Services Department Director Denise Lucas, a notice affirming each construction project’s “essential status” should be displayed at the construction site and all projects must comply with social distancing and safety measures in the new “Supplemental Guidance for the Construction Industry.”

Those safety measures include daily job-site health screenings for each worker, hand-washing stations, eliminating community water coolers, and a commitment to cleaning and disinfecting shared tools, common areas and “collective touch points” like doorknobs and keyboards. In addition, site managers are required to post information in English and Spanish about the new regulations and ways to submit complaints about violations.

To determine which projects will move forward, the city has formed a Construction Exemption Review Committee that will review requests for designation, with all determinations being final. There is no process for appeals.

The committee, according to the press release, is a joint effort of the director of the Development Services Department, the city’s Building Official, and representatives from Law, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, Austin Code Department, Austin Fire Department, the Public Works Department and the Economic Development Department.

Exemptions can be requested on the Development Services Department website.

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