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Memoirs of a City Manager: Affordability is an All-Hands Problem (Repost)

A Former City Planning Manager for Austin, Shares How He Helped Tackle Institutional Inertia to Create a Department of Yes

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in both Millennial American Dream & The Walkist and is republished with permission.

The affordability problem in American development – residential, commercial, or otherwise – is real.

The causes are multi-faceted, but so are the contributing solutions. As with most complex issues, no magical or singular silver bullet exists, but that’s no reason to throw your hands up in defeat. Just the opposite, it’s all the more reason to look inward and ask what you can do to help.

Cities have a big hand in affordability viz-a-viz how expensive it is to comply with development requirements and how long it takes to get through the bureaucracy of the permitting process. If you are a City Council member, you can affect meaningful change in both regards. If you are a city staffer, you might think you can’t affect any change, but you’d be wrong. In my time as a city planning manager for the City of Austin, Texas, I observed that development projects were routinely getting bogged down in the permitting process, and the feedback I heard from the development community was that they felt like no one at the City cared. I heard anecdote after anecdote of staff refusing to answer questions outside of formal review processes; regulatory conundrums resulting in roadblocks that staff declined to resolve; and code-interpretation nightmares of staff playing “gotcha” games with projects.

The real-life example I consistently point to is that of a project getting stuck for more than a year-and-a-half over the question of where to place the driveway. It’s a cliché, but in the development world, it’s an undeniable, inescapable truth: time is money. A year-and-a-half delay over a driveway is mind-boggling, and it’s an absolute wonder that the delay didn’t completely kill the project.

The project was on a corner, so there were two streets to potentially place the driveway on. The transportation rules dictated that the driveway go on the less busy street. However, on the less busy street, there was a protected environmental feature. Two rules that do not inherently conflict ended up in a regulatory stalemate at the circumstantial confluence of this property. State law holds that the property cannot be denied access (aka, a driveway); however, there was no impetus for either review discipline to be the one to budge.

Finally, after more than 18 months, the developer was able to elevate the issue to the executive level and force a compromise which gave them an approved driveway location. Without pointing fingers, everyone can agree that this situation should never have been allowed to go on for that long, and it, without a doubt, added to the expense (i.e. affordability) of the project.

On the staff side of these issues, I wanted to figure out the root causes behind the behaviors reported by the development community. Programs that simply apply behavioral or operational mandates which feel arbitrary are rarely embraced, and if I couldn’t get staff buy-in, none of the programmatic changes would be successful. I needed to change not just the bureaucratic processes but, more importantly, the culture. Themes I heard from staff included a lack of agency or authority to make decisions; concern that a greenlight to a request outside of a formal review process with engineered plans might be misapplied in an effort to “get one over” on the City; and a general feeling that developers purposely submit half-baked designs, wanting staff to design the project for them.

I resolved to do what I could from where I was positioned to make the development process less cumbersome and more solution oriented. At the same time, I needed to change the culture from one of being the department that searches for ways to say “no” to the department that searches for ways to say “yes” – or in a perhaps more nuanced way, the department of “yes, let’s find a way to get you there”. I dedicated my time to developing and implementing programs aimed at getting answers, clarity, and a path forward for projects stuck in the quagmire of complex regulations and apathetic bureaucracy.

The first thing I did was to begin getting support from the executive level so that we could share a common narrative – that the City has a responsibility to aid in affordability where it can. One of those ways was to empower staff members to make decisions that they would otherwise feel the need to refer to their higher-ups. We gave staff the discretion that is afforded within the regulations and a stated mission to find solutions that fit the spirit of code.

We also began a series of conversations with staff aimed at overcoming cultural perceptions of development being an “us versus them” paradigm, shifting it instead to one of “us” on both sides of the table with shared goals.

We encouraged staff to take meetings and answer code-related questions that came from developers, even outside of formal processes. I explained it like this, if a developer presents a specific set of circumstances and asks if a given approach would be code-compliant (or would be approved during review), don’t be shy about giving them a direct answer. If the circumstances are different when the formal review comes around, or if the approach is not the same as discussed, you’re not bound to an answer that’s no longer applicable to the situation. It’s completely ok to say (and more importantly, to document), “Based on these parameters [list them out], if I saw what we’re discussing during formal review, yes that would be a viable solution.” Having the discussion on the front end saves multiple review cycles and countless billable engineering and design hours, eliminating a needless and expensive back and forth game that had unfortunately become the norm over the years.

We worked hard to help staff see that guarding acceptable solutions and code interpretations as “state secrets” was not a strategy that worked to anyone’s benefit – not the developers’ and not staff’s. The more open, transparent, and communicative the City could be, the better it served everyone. In the long run, developers would know more answers and viable options without even needing to reach out to staff. The more time staff could free up for themselves, the more they could lower their stress levels.

Change did not come overnight. These efforts were a slog. But we stuck to the narrative and continued coaching staff on the culture we were trying to establish. Over the next twelve months, we began to see the results we were looking for, both for developers and for staff.

My goal was to implement an official procedure (yes, more bureaucracy is sometimes the solution) aimed at eliminating the possibility of the driveway fiasco from ever happening again. I spelled out a series of steps to be followed anytime a developer identifies a moment when two pieces of regulation end up in direct conflict on a given project. The steps of course included vetting the problem to make sure that the regulations were indeed in direct conflict and that a design solution was not otherwise available. If in direct conflict, I set out a series of steps, including escalation to higher and higher levels of authority where appropriate, which would resolve any situation in no more than a matter of weeks, not months or years. I got approval from the executive leadership to adopt the steps as official policy (which gave the program its needed teeth). Our IT group helped us create a simple system for initiating and tracking such instances. Then, we launched and, most importantly, advertised the available solution to the development community. Within the first six months, we had multiple legitimate instances initiated by developers using the online tool, all of which went through the process and were resolved as intended.

I knew that if we could decrease the amount of time and number of iterations a project went through in the review process, we could directly contribute to lowering development costs. The solutions we implemented had the added benefit of improving departmental culture for City staff. No one had to view the changes as a sacrifice or a power shift in a zero-sum game because everyone came out on the other side better than they were.

It’s easy to sit back and assume that we are powerless to affect real change. It is tempting to point out how much easier it would be to impart solutions if only we had the platform of some other job, role, or position. But if we take the time to understand the system and our role in it, we can find creative ways to remove obstacles and contribute to solutions.

The changes we made were not the be-all end-all. They may not even have been the best available solutions. But they were a starting point. Incremental change is more powerful than we often realize. If we embrace “good” over “perfect” and accept incremental improvements as victories rather than demanding immediate wholesale solutions, we can make real and meaningful differences.

Anaiah Matthew is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. He is also the author of The Walkist, which explores the experience of walking through the eyes of a city planner while touching on topics of philosophy, sports, psychology, hobbies, and more. In the words of the venerable Dr. Austin Johnson, author of Executive Counseling, The Walkist “combines the discipline of a scholar, the wisdom of experience, and the unforced poetry of someone fully present in the moment.” Anaiah lives and works in Austin, Texas.You can also find content from The Walkist on Instagram.

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