Austin wants to make it easier for people to remodel their homes

Demolition site where a new home is being built. (KXAN Photo/Juan Salinas)
Demolition site where a new home is being built. (KXAN Photo/Juan Salinas)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In an effort to make it easier for homeowners to remodel their homes with less headaches, Austin City Council approved a resolution to streamline the permitting system for smaller residential projects at Thursday’s meeting.

The Family Homestead Initiative directs the city manager to identify all current code requirements and fees associated with improving a home. City council members say as the cost of living goes up in Austin, more people are looking for “creative ways to stay in place,” and that means potentially adding on or remodeling their home.

Several council members at a press conference before the vote Thursday said they supported the resolution. Council members Delia Garza, Greg Casar, Ellen Troxclair, Ann Kitchen and Alison Alter believe the cost of fees associated with permitting make it difficult for families to make the changes. Those present at the press conference said their constituents have felt overwhelmed with fees and delays associated with city permitting.

The resolution wants the city to identify all the fees associated with expanding or remodeling a home that includes a list of the most common permits applied for by a homeowner and fees associated with said permits.

“One concern I’ve heard consistently from constituents throughout the city is the difficulty they have in navigating city regulations and permitting requirements in order to improve or update their homes,” said Council Member Garza. “This council has shown a commitment to helping families and small businesses stay in Austin. As our city grows, we need real common sense solutions that put Austin families first. My hope is we develop a separate, user-friendly permitting process for our homeowners.”

Garza said that this resolution isn’t a knock at Development Services, but rather a change that’s been needed for years in Austin.

A spokesperson for Austin’s Development Services Department explained that all of the permitting steps the city requires of homeowners are driven by a desire to keep everyone safe and to comply with the land development and building codes. She added that the only time you don’t need a permit with the city to remodel is if your structure is under 200 square feet and doesn’t require electrical, mechanical or plumbing. But even in those cases, land development code requires where you can put it on the property.

“So much of the policy at the city level are the big developers, but often who gets swept up in those really expensive fees and regulations are just the regular people who are trying to make minor changes in their homes,” explained Council Member Troxclair.

Troxclair said that she has inquired about the cost of adding a one bedroom guesthouse on her own property, but realized it was too pricey when the bid amounted to $160,000 when accounting for city permitting fees.

“It is making it less and less affordable for people to stay in their own homes staying in Austin,” Troxclair said, noting some of her constituents have emailed her as recently as this week, letting her know they’re moving because they feel they can’t afford to have homes here.

Austinite Monica Brickley appeared at the press event as well, sharing that the costs of rebuilding have pushed her and her family to consider moving to the suburbs.

“There have been tears, there have been fights, there’s been going down to the city begging and pleading,” said Brickley.

After her father died, she and her husband decided the best option would be to bring in her mother to live with them.

“Combining two households into one, you would think it would save a lot of money, but you would be surprised at how the expenses mount on top of each other,” Brickley said. They faced hurdles in trying to get her mother a detached apartment on their property, each step of building required new fees from the city and separated approval.

Then when Brickley had kids, they tried to rebuild again and worked with a building designer who again warned them about the permitting process in Austin.

“And she was like, ‘If you’re on a budget, like most families are’ she said ‘I recommend you build new, it’s the only way I can control your cost,” Brickley said.

She explained that waiting for permits and stomaching extra costs during these rebuilds have forced her to spend more money and wind up with a less energy efficient home than they’d planned for.

“My husband and I would look at each other and we would just cry if we had to leave our central Austin neighborhood, it’s what we love, we bike on the trails every single weekend, we take part in all the central Austin activities with our kids and we just couldn’t imagine leaving,” Brickley said. “But yeah but you’d be silly not to think about moving out when you see what you’re about to go through.”

The city manager now has to present a proposal for this initiative before council in January.

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