Austin residents are no strangers to orange cones dotting the highways or construction cranes in the sky. But one KUT listener wondered: Why does it take so long to get anything built around here?
Stuart Berkowitz, who asked the question for our ATXplained series, got his first impression of Austin construction when he moved here about 13 years ago. He noticed a sign near the intersection of I-35 and Ben White, where a road project was underway. The projected completion date read “September.”
“And so I figured that was September of ’03 when I moved down here,” Berkowitz said. “And then it kept slipping and slipping, and I thought jokingly, maybe half-jokingly, maybe they meant September of 2004. They never had a date up there. Eventually, they took that sign down.”
Berkowitz doesn’t work in construction. He’s a teacher at Akins High School, but he couldn’t help but notice that the pace of building in Austin seemed a lot slower than in his home state of New Jersey, and he wondered why there was a difference. He had a few guesses.
“I could conjecture that the weather, sometimes it’s more rainy than they anticipate or it’s cooler, or it’s just maybe more laid back, this part of the country,” Berkowitz said. “I don’t know. I’d love to find out the answer.”
Here’s the thing – there are huge differences in what it takes to build roads and what it takes to build, say, a house. For roads, there are so many different rules, regulations and jurisdictions at play, so we decided to go with housing.
As it turns out, housing is more interconnected than we think. A new report from the White House takes on the issue of local housing development. It said a lengthy approval process can keep a city’s housing supply from catching up with demand – the result, housing gets more expensive. If people can’t afford to live in a city, it can be harder for businesses to grow there. In Austin, the conversation seemed to keep coming back to one specific thing – the city’s permitting process.
Before you can construct, alter or demolish a building in Austin, you typically need a permit from the city's Development Services Department. Ward Tisdale is president of the Real Estate Council of Austin, or RECA.
“The permitting department has unfortunately a notorious reputation for not getting things done in a speedy and efficient manner,” Tisdale said.
But Tisdale says sometimes, that can take months. RECA has been openly critical of the slow permitting process, saying every day of delay means more costs passed on to homebuyers and renters.
“This is near a crisis situation for homeowners and renters in Austin, the lack of supply,” Tisdale said. “And so it’s incumbent on the city council to recognize that crisis situation and take action to expedite permits, to make it more efficient, to get things built in a more speedy manner so that there will be downward pressure on rents and home prices.”
In fact, the city has proposed an expedited permitting process – it would allow for a speedier review in exchange for a fee. It’s one of several changes proposed after an extensive review of the Development Services Department. The so-called Zucker Report was released last year. It recommended hundreds of changes, including better technology, improved customer service and eliminating the permitting backlog. After several requests, the staff did not make anyone available for an interview, so here’s their director Rodney Gonzales speaking at City Hall in February.
“We care about the Austin community,” Gonzales said. “We care about our environment, and we care about the vibrancy of the city of Austin, and the standards for providing that service include being accessible, being responsive, being fair, being informative and being flexible.”
While RECA supports faster permitting, there are other interests to take into account. A local labor group called the Workers Defense Project advocated for the process to require protections for construction workers, which the city council approved. Another group, the Austin Neighborhoods Council, is critical of the proposed expedited review. The ANC’s David King said it could favor high-end developments over affordable ones.
“Those projects that can afford to pay that increased price for the expedited permit reviews, they will definitely get in that line and they will get expedited ahead of the other projects, so that would create an inequity there,” Kind said.
King said the Neighborhoods Council supports requiring worker protections, but Ward Tisdale with RECA said they unnecessarily complicate the process. In the end, a lot of competing groups have skin in the construction game, but the city is working on ways to speed up the process. We reported back to question-asker Stuart Berkowitz with the findings.
“I just hope that’s true that that does come to pass that there’s a more cohesive, coherent, smoother way of doing things that would expedite construction,” Berkowitz said.
For now, the details are still under construction. It will be up to city leaders to come up with a plan that works for everyone.