City Hall Focuses on Housing Costs, EMS Talks

Council to consider resolution evaluating impact of zoning on housing supply


Photo by John Anderson

As City Council this week continues its gradual pivot back to housing land use issues, a resolution from Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, originally slated for the Dec. 2 agenda but now planned for Dec. 9, would direct staff to evaluate how much it costs to build both common and emerging residential product types in the city.

Much attention has been paid over the past decade, as Austin has struggled to implement its Imagine Austin Com­prehensive Plan and rewrite its 40-year-old Land Develop­ment Code, to the impact of zoning on housing supply. Consensus on that issue remains elusive, but stakeholders on every side of Austin's development battles agree that the city's permitting and administrative processes are time-consuming and costly, particularly for multifamily construction. Harper-Madison's item envisions a matrix which would break down the individual costs involved in producing (at least) five different housing types: detached single-family, duplex, townhome, small multiplex, and mid-rise multifamily.

The middle three of these form the much-discussed "missing middle housing" that has been an object of desire among Council members and housing advocates ever since Imagine Austin was adopted. Though these product types theoretically offer a way to incrementally densify neighborhoods and deliver market-rate housing at price points average Austinites can afford, the complexities of Austin zoning and permitting have made them elusive to implement, even in places where the neighbors aren't opposed. (A fair amount of "missing middle" can be found in older Austin neighborhoods that predate the 1982 code.)

Staff will analyze how land costs, labor and materials, financing, and "city costs" all influence median rents and purchase prices in Austin. "City costs" include the high-priced consultants needed to shepherd property owners through the process of changing a site's entitlements (zoning, subdivision, etc.) and preparing the site plans required of multifamily and commercial projects, as well as fees for parkland, tree preservation, street impacts, traffic analyses, and more. The end goal is to find efficiencies in processing, identify fees that could be waived, and otherwise ease the cost burden so builders can more easily finance projects other than traditional garden apartments or (increasingly large) single­-family infill homes. The resolution gives staff a full year to complete this work, with an interim report due May 1.

Meanwhile, while Council discussed housing policy at its Nov. 30 work session, the Austin EMS Association and the city's Labor Relations team began talks on a new contract for the city's emergency medical services sworn staff. The negotiations are being livestreamed in full via YouTube; more details and a schedule of upcoming sessions can be found at austintexas.gov/laborrelations.

A primary focus for the union is staff retention; Austin's EMS medics, like other health care workers, have grappled with severe burnout during two years of pandemic conditions. Current staff shortages have led to what are technically on-call shifts, but failure of a medic to respond when called is grounds for disciplinary action, so the union views them as burdensome mandatory overtime. Previously, medics were scheduled for one of these shifts per month, but now they're being scheduled for two per month – and sometimes three.

"The City cannot afford to balk at this opportunity to dramatically increase pay, strengthen benefits, and enhance working conditions for Austin's medics," EMS Association President Selena Xie said in a statement after day one of negotiations. "Both to retain our experienced providers and to compete with a paramedic job market that is suddenly far outpacing our City's offerings."

Rank-and-file union members are concerned that EMS leadership (the department is currently without a permanent chief) doesn't have their back in fighting for better wages and benefits through the city budget process; comparatively low wages (medics start at $19/hour) help explain the persistent and growing staff shortages. As of Nov. 30, EMS had 129 staffing vacancies.

Current labor contracts with all three public safety unions are set to expire in September 2022. Negotiations with the Austin Police Association and Austin Firefighters Association will begin early next year. On Dec. 2, Council is set to authorize a contract with the law firm Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech P.C., not to exceed $400,000, to serve as outside counsel during the labor talks.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin City Council, housing, Austin EMS Association, Natasha Harper-Madison, Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, Land Development Code, missing middle housing, Selena Xie, Austin Police Association, Austin Firefighters Association

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