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Austin Prepares to Launch New Expedited Building Permit Program

Now that it’s been given the green light by the the Austin City Council, a new program will launch in the coming weeks to expedite permitting for construction projects including "living wages" for large commercial projects.

The Austin Business Journal described the program this way:

After paying the additional fees, residential, mixed-use and small commercial projects can join the expedited permitting program with no extra hurdles. However major commercial projects — at least 75,000 square feet or $7.5 million in value, with no residential uses — must submit to oversight by a third party, such as the Workers Defense Project through its Better Builder Program. Projects including the Apple Inc. campus in Northwest Austin and Trammell Crow Co.'s redevelopment of the Green Water Treatment plant have used a version of the Better Builder Program, according to its website.

The Better Builder Program asks companies to pay a "living wage," and provide OSHA safety training and workers compensation insurance, among other things. Projects do not have to use the Better Builder Program; the ordinance says similar programs work fine as long as they contain "comparable worker protection standards."

As Construction Citizen has reported the new program was passed despite the objections of much of the business community, including AGC of Austin, ABC, the Austin Chamber of Commerce, and the Austin Independent Business Alliance.

As this program was debated at City Hall, President and CEO of the Austin Chapter of the Associated General Contractors Phil Thoden called the proposal “misguided.” In the days before the vote, Thoden sent an email to contractors, saying “It simply forces permit applicants to choose between the current, slow process or pay to hire a local workforce monitor and pass those costs along to the building's end users.”

Austin Chamber of Commerce President Michael Rollins wrote in a letter to the council that the business community supports reform of the permitting process but he argued the changes should not “mandate unrelated certifications like SMART Housing or Workers Defense Project Better Builder Program.”

“The Chamber feels that additional requirements on expedited permitting will create a disincentive and customers will not avail themselves of the program,” Rollins wrote at the time. “If more projects can move forward at a faster pace, the City can receive accelerated benefits in the form of property taxes, affordable housing, and related economic activity. Conversely, proposals to add further costs and delays to the expedited permitting program will make it harder for Austin residents to live and grow their businesses here,” Rollins said.

The program was defended by Bo Delp, Workers Defense Project Better Builder Director, in an op-ed here on Construction Citizen:

“Here are the facts: according to a study conducted in collaboration between Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas, more construction workers die on the job in Texas than in any other state. One in five construction workers report being injured on the job. While fifty per cent of workers report not receiving overtime pay, more than one in five report being denied payment for their construction work in Texas.

That’s why, in response to a broad community coalition, the city is also considering Better Builder standards as a minimum requirement for participation in this expedited permit review process. Since 2012, Better Builder standards have been implemented on six projects (with a seventh on the way) totalling nearly $1 billion in development to ensure over 8,000 men and women in construction gain access to good, safe construction jobs.

Through Workers Defense Project’s Better Builder program, developers commit to requiring wage and safety standards for all construction workers on their projects. That includes following all wage and safety laws, and providing a living wage, OSHA-10 training, and workers’ compensation insurance to all construction workers. It also includes a local hiring goal from DOL-registered apprenticeship programs and bilingual craft training programs to incentivize quality craft training programs.”

More information on the program is available from the City of Austin by clicking here.