December 18th, 2013
If you’ve never thought about how development regulations get handed down from the Federal government to the states and then to local municipalities, here’s your chance.
Jad and I explore the topic of building permits in local cities (specifically Austin in this case) and consider the pros and cons of such laws.
Speaker 1: Does the NSA collect any type of data at
all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
Speaker 2: No, sir.
Kevin: Hello, and welcome to the JK podcast, an anti-authoritarian
philosophical endeavor recorded in Austin, Texas. We draw our topics from the
entire scope of the human experience with central connecting themes focused on the
grand ideas of liberty, humanity, and equality. The JK Podcast is hosted by Jad
Davis and Kevin Ludlow. Welcome back to another episode.
If you’ve never thought about how the development regulations get handed down
from the federal government to the states, and then to the local municipalities,
here’s your chance. Jad and I explore the topic of building permits in
local cities – specifically within Austin in this case – and consider the pros and cons
of such laws.
Jad: You know, here’s my native
position is when I read the thing – so read the description of this problem, the
problem being that permits expire after what is it, five years, three years?
Kevin: It depends on –
Kevin: – what it is, I think.
Jad: So building permits expire after some
period of time and they’re going to reverse that rule or let it lax so that
building permits will last indefinitely and the problem this brings up is that
there’s all these old permits that have expired, but they will suddenly be
unexpired, but they might be building codes from the 80s or 90s or whatever when
apparently you could make you know, skyscrapers out of mud and brick that would
collapse at the first sign of rain or something, I’m not sure what the danger is
really but apparently, there’s some awful hazards. So I don’t know,
it’s when I’m reading this thing I’m like, I don’t really have
any grounds upon which to pick a side, you know what I mean?
Jad: I just don’t know how to reason
that sort of thing and I don’t know, that’s kinda where I get to I guess.
Kevin: Well I can give you some points of reason that I’ve
thought of over the years that I’ve definitely presented to various neighborhood
groups. One of the things that really bothers me about a lot of the laws that
they put into place are that you know, most of these things already exist to begin
with. So for example, the way that the – from what I understand I mean,
I’m definitely no developer or anything like that – but from what I
understand, the building codes and laws like that there, kind of a top bottom
structure, right? So where if there’s some federal code that says,
“You have to do this”, you know and if there’s a federal law that
says, “Your house has to have a smoke detector”, then the state obviously
has to inherit that and it kind of trickles its way down.
So by the time you actually get to the state level with this sort of thing, the
Texas State Building Code is already – you’re talking about issues of
safety and things of that, these things are already so accounted for in my
opinion. Now you could obviously make things slightly more – you can always
make things safer in a manner of speaking. You could always make things more
structurally sound by adding more material, or adding stronger material, or whatever
the case is, but of course there’s tremendous costs, and material costs, and
engineering costs that has to go into that.
So I take some initial issue with things like that because I think a lot of times,
people are like, “oh, this makes it better”, and even in some of those
emails that I saw that went out you know, there was an example where they were
suggesting that you know, as technology and science gets better, we should keep
adopting the newest technologies and I very strongly disagree with that because I feel
that ideally we should which is why the wealthier people are very likely going to use
those things because it’s always nice to have a stronger building, but to insist
the people do that under penalty of city law I think is the wrong way to go to say the
You know, more of a libertarian type of side or frankly just a sensible economic
policy, I just think it’s horrible because it forces the cost of things up in
areas where the needn’t go up in the first place, and I think Austin is largely
responsible for driving a lot of the – I think a lot of the reasons why Austin is
more expensive than a lot of the other cities in Texas has a lot to do with a lot of
the building codes that the city of Austin puts in place.
So if the city forces you to use material that are you know, 20% more expensive and
forces you to pay for all of these permits, well at the end, of course it’s no
wonder that your house costs an extra $50,000. It doesn’t make it a $50,000
better building, and so I feel that there’s kind of this artificial inflation
that exists in the building market here. So that’s why you know, with
respect to these permits expiring and things like that, none of these things are going
to be able to trump state and federal laws, you know?
Jad: Sure. So I have no problem with
that argument and that is entirely persuasive to me as far as you’re talking
about parts of the building code that just increase the safety requirements or
whatever, increase the cost and increase the quality of the building material, that
sort of thing. So that I don’t have any mental conflict there or –
the one side of the argument I don’t really buy into, the one that says you know,
everyone should have to build to a minimum standard. I think if you’re
building something to live in, then you are assuming the risks associated with building
a house out of subpar material, but that’s you know, you’re bouncing that
against what all the other things in your life that you need to pay for, and
that’s entirely reasonable.
I don’t see any problem with that, but here’s a for instance, like so
what if on the edge of Mueller[?] or whatever, 20 years ago some guy got a permit to
build a you know, a landfill, or he got a permit to build a you know, a petroleum
storage facility or something like that, right? Then by
“deregulating” or by moving backwards in time as far as things that may not
be allowed anymore now were allowed previously suddenly can be carried through again
– that wasn’t said very well but you get my point I think.
Kevin: Absolutely I get your point, yeah. So you know, I
think you had pointed that part of the potential ordinance out to me and unfortunately,
I didn’t actually follow up and see what happened at city council when they did
this, but I think the principle of the argument holds all the same so we can definitely
still talk about it. In a case like that you know again, I don’t really
know if necessarily those permits immediately just come into play. Let’s
just assume for argument’s sake that they did and from what you said, it sounds
like they would, I guess the thing I find a little – I don’t have a great
counterargument to it – but you know, as far as the actual verbatim language of
the law might be concerned.
But it seems to me that it would be pretty reasonable to find a middle ground that
says that we’re still going to examine individual cases when it’s got a
concern of some sort of environmental impact, or when it’s got a concern of some
sort of what they would call spot zoning. So for example, if there was a permit
20 years ago that said we’re gonna build an industry right here and maybe 20
years ago that would’ve been appropriate, but now all of a sudden there’s
residences all around there, it seems to me that you know, you could pretty easily say,
“well in the case of spot zoning, we’re gonna immediately flag it and see
what happens and then we’re gonna weigh at one individually”, because I
guess the thing for me is trying to say like I have no problem with people keeping up
with local regulations, I think local regulations have some good intention behind them
– I think Austin’s insane – but I think the general idea behind them
is not necessarily bad but in these cases, I guess what I don’t like about the
system is that the people who are in favor of these permitting times, they just
don’t recognize the amount of money and the length of time that’s required
to kind of crawl through these bureaucratic obstacles that the city of Austin puts up
for people, for developers.
And I think the most people who continue to argue that, they’re never gonna
know because they’re not the people who are engaged in developing stuff. In
many cases, they probably don’t have the money to try to pursue interest like
that and so they’re never actually gonna know just how challenging this is, how
challenging the city makes it for them. So I think it just wouldn’t be
unreasonable to create some sort of regulation on that that says, “Look, in these
cases, we’re still going to do an individual check.” If an industry
that was 30 years old is gonna pop up in the neighborhood, we’re still gonna
disallow that just on common sense reasoning, but just because you’ve taken six
years to build your project instead of three years, we don’t think that you
should have to spend another $60,000 getting that permitted and I think that’s a
pretty reasonable point of view.
So again, it doesn’t exactly address your question as far as like the you
know, what do you do with that actual language, but surely in a local side of
governance, there has to be a middle ground like that that could be achieved where you
could get rid of this whole stupid you know, you gotta build it in three to five years
or you’re done without actually disrupting you know, existing environmental
standards and established neighborhoods, and et cetera.
Jad: Right. Sure. Well I think
that’s the crux of the problem I believe is that the suspicion is – and I
would think it’s pretty well found in general – but the suspicion is that
there’s some group of developers who have things that would now be unwelcome were
it to be built that are pushing for this time limit to be dropped so that they can do
their development and that it is not an attempt to help people who are just honestly
developing some small project and takes six years instead of five.
My point is I guess that this is where the sticky point is, and this is why this
sort of government structure fails because there are so many instances in which things
are masked as we’re trying to be helpful to the citizens, when actually what
they’re trying to do is put things in place for some nefarious purpose by their
massive funding political backers, because that happens so frequently, nobody can move
in a deregulatory way right, because along with the deregulation that helps the little
guy as it were is always the fear of deregulating something that’s just gonna
unleash some giant nightmare of you know, corporatism.
Kevin: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that’s
the – if I’m understanding you right – I think that’s exactly
Jad: It’s kinda hard with my
Kevin: No, I follow it. I follow it just fine. No, but
I think that’s correct and I think that what you said, that why this type of
governance fails and I agree with that, that’s my argument all the time.
You know, I think when it comes to developmental standards and you know, neighborhood
development, and growth, and community growth, and et cetera, I think I’m pretty
reasonable about it quite frankly and maybe some other people would say otherwise, but
I think I’ve got a pretty reasonable take on it and I think it pretty much just
comes down to common sense.
But you know, as far as the property rights go I mean, I’m as in favor or
property rights as anybody could be but at the same time, I’m probably still not
going to speak entirely in favor of a guy who happens to own a piece of land next to an
elementary school and says, “now I’m gonna build a tire factory next to
it”, you know I think common sense would dictate that even though the property
right still exist that we should find a way to avoid that because clearly there’s
some downsides to that. But I think one of the problems that Austin has is that
– and you probably, I think you said this in there but I may have missed it
– is that as they pile more, and more, and more of this shit on, at some point in
time I think this is a likely consequence of the system, it’s like the blowback
if you will of this local structure where you start making things so difficult for
people there’s such a lack of reasonability to the whole process that it’s
not surprising to me that at some point, those people are gonna band together and
revolt and quite frankly, I have a lot of sympathy for them having dealt with those
You know, I think there’s a lot of developers out there – especially in
the city of Austin – you know, one of the things I find consistently just because
a lot of developers call me up for whatever reason in fact one guy did just a few weeks
ago, I’ve spoken with him several times now and he wants my support for this
development that they’re gonna build over near your neighborhood actually, and
it’s a housing development but the thing is is that it’s very difficult to
– most developers in this city don’t wanna build stuff, they kind of
contradict the spirit of the neighborhood because they know that if they do, the
community is probably going to respond to them very poorly.
For example, like if you did buy a piece of property in Austin and it was zoned
industrial, so now you’ve got the right permit to do it, you’re in the
right zoning case. But if it turned out that there was like some neighborhood
park right next door, if you build your tire factory there, chances are that this
city’s probably gonna band itself together somehow or another and if not get you
shut down cause all sorts of grief for you – and no developer wants to deal with
that either I mean, it’s just bad for business. So I feel like the city
actually interestingly enough is pretty good at self-regulating because everybody gets
so up in arms about everything, so with that in mind, I think that’s why
it’s particularly frustrating that there’s so many additional city
regulations on the way that properties need to be built and maybe it’s a chicken
and egg thing here and maybe because the city is so strict that’s why the
neighborhood feels that they can be so in your face about it, or maybe the other way
around, I don’t really know. But I guess what I’m saying is
it’s not surprising to me that these people are trying to circumvent these
processes now if that’s indeed what’s happening because it’s so
Jad: Sure, yeah. No, I have no doubt
about that. I guess maybe because the other weird part is – it’s not
that weird I guess, maybe you hang out with the wrong developers – but like the
domain had no problem going in and you know, even things that were contested like the
Wal-Mart on – not north [?], is it [?] –
Kevin: It’s Anderson.
Jad: Anderson. You know, it had some
problem but despite a nearly universal neighborhood you know, opposition to it, it went
in – and I’m not saying that’s good or bad – but it seems like
I think the problem is again that people feel like they don’t have any control
over that sort of thing, over the big development things that happen. And so when
someone says something is gonna be more restrictive, it’s like a blind –
what’s the word I’m looking for, there’s an analogy here somewhere
– it’s just a blind striking out at what they perceive to be development
out of control even though what’s actually being done is things that if they ever
try to make a modification to their house, they’re going to give them you know,
hours and years of nightmarish grief by the permitting office.
They still see that as their only way to check development that they don’t
like. Whether or not they’re morally correct in feeling that they have the
power to oppose it at all, that’s the feeling and so no amount of regulation is
too much for you know large numbers of people in Austin and for certain developers,
that works out to their favor as well because their competition may not have the same
relationship with the contractors that get the expedient lines at the permitting
Jad: So it may be that the more regulations
there are, the bigger the gap of their advantage, vis-a-vis development goes up over
there competitors. So it seems like it’s I guess again, I don’t
really have a strong opinion either way except that the city shouldn’t be
regulating anything at all I mean, that’s the outside the box opinion, but if
they’re going to then in what manner should they? It’s very hard for
me to get a feel for what the right answer is.
And that’s where we’ll stop for this episode. As always, thank you
so very much for tuning in to the show. If you haven’t done so already,
please stop by our podcast website at www.JKPod.com
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