The following editorial published in the Austin American-Statesman on Aug. 18:
Four years ago, a consultant issued hundreds of recommendations and a challenge to Austin officials overseeing the sluggish, sometimes dysfunctional system for reviewing building and development permits.
“Austin must decide if it really is serious this time” about fixing its problems, the Zucker Report said. “If so, some dramatic actions ... will be necessary.”
Since then, the city’s efforts to improve its permitting operations could fill a book. But in some important aspects, they haven’t moved the needle. Less than a third of the people who filled out city surveys in the past few years were satisfied with the overall plan review process, and only 16% to 34% were satisfied with the amount of time different steps of the process took.
Rarely does the city meet its own goal of processing at least 90% of the applications by the city’s own deadlines, according to a new city audit that council member Alison Alter rightly called disturbing and disappointing.
And soon, the stakes will be even higher: Under House Bill 3167, which goes into effect Sept. 1, developers’ requests for plats, site development plans and subdivision plans will be approved automatically, warts and all, if the city fails to act on those applications within a 30-day “shot clock.” To meet those deadlines, Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales told the council’s Audit and Finance Committee last week, “We will have to use overtime and will probably have to ask staff to work on the weekends.”
It’s distressing the city’s Development Services Department remains in such straits. But the situation underscores the key recommendations the Zucker Report made back in 2015: The city needs more staffers and better tools to process permits more efficiently.
Keep in mind, those impacted by delays in the permitting process aren’t faceless customers. They are homeowners wanting to put an addition on their home to accommodate their growing family. They are longtime residents looking to create a garage apartment for some extra income. They are developers seeking to build apartment complexes with more of the units Austin badly needs.
As part of the city’s push to preserve and provide affordable housing, officials need to ensure such projects can get permitted in a timely way, without cutting corners on city standards. Delays run up costs for residents and developers alike, and they drag out the wait for housing units needed today.
The City Council has gradually worked on one of the chief recommendations of the Zucker Report: to hire more staffers to review plans and provide inspections in a more timely way. The council approved 38 new positions in 2016 for the Development Services Department, followed by 52 more last fall. But with the lag time in interviewing, hiring and training people, many of the staffers for those 52 openings are just now starting.
We’re hopeful this influx of staffing will improve the permit review process. It will remain the council’s responsibility each budget cycle to ensure the offices reviewing permits – not only Development Services but the city’s utility departments, Watershed Protection and others – continue to have the staffing they need.
It is also imperative that the new effort to rewrite the city’s development regulations, a fresh start after last year’s CodeNext debacle, produces a more straightforward code that will be easier for staffers and developers to navigate. As it is now, the city’s code has so many vague or conflicting passages that staffers sometimes interpret and apply standards differently, the city audit found. This issue takes on added urgency under HB 3167, as the legislation bars cities from raising issues later in the review process that could have been flagged at the outset. The new law leaves permitting staff no room for error.
Other logistics also deserve attention: With estimates suggesting anywhere from a third to half of all projects in Austin are being done without the required permits, the city needs to raise awareness that residents can – and should – call 311 to see if the work at their house needs a permit. The permitting and inspection process helps ensure the work meets safety standards.
The city also needs to adopt the technology allowing for plans to be submitted and reviewed online. And the city needs more reliable systems for tracking the progress of permits and identifying bottlenecks that need to be addressed.
A city with the growth pressures and housing needs of Austin needs a permitting department that can keep pace. But more work remains if Austin is indeed serious about delivering permits in a timely way.